Thursday 26 December 2019

Won't you be my neighbour?

For all the debate about how early you can put Christmas decorations up, it doesn’t take long for them to come down. I wonder if that isn’t part of how we tell the story: it’s a lot of build up to one moment on one night when everyone’s there, just like in a traditional creche or nativity scene. That one moment captured, a tableau into which we’ve poured the whole story. And then we’re done.

But it’s just the beginning of a story, not the end. As the legendary preacher Howard Thurman observed “when the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and the princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins.” Yes, after all that work preparing, there’s work to be done after Christmas. Just ask the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John doesn't have a birth story for Jesus. Neither does Mark, incidentally. Mark jumps right in with John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the adult Jesus who’s then baptized by John, spends some time in the wilderness and heads into ministry. All business, that Mark.

But John gives Jesus a more cosmic beginning. John talks about “the Word” that was in the beginning, that was with God and is God and was part of the creation of all things. That “Word” has become flesh and bone, one of us. But not just a figure set apart, present but disconnected. No, this is about being one of us. As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, a contemporary language paraphrase of the Bible, “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.”

“And moved into the neighbourhood.” This is a new way of looking at our relationship with God. It’s not just about “come, let us adore him,” it’s about welcoming a new member of the community and getting to know them and engaging them and being open to them engaging us.

We’re not always good at that. Especially if the new neighbour’s “different.” And there are so many ways we can be different. We’re really good at noticing the different and we’re really good at using the different to separate, negate, disconnect and exclude.

But here’s God saying “I’ll be just like you.” Not exactly the same, of course, that can’t be done. But here’s God saying I’ll be just like you and show you how love is alive in you and how sharing that love will make a better world: better relationships, better care, better, well, living.

Christmas is the annual reminder that God’s here, living next door, just down the street and across town. Maybe don’t put that part of Christmas away. Keep out a decoration or two that reminds you that the love in that manger in Bethlehem is in you and in your neighbour and in everyone you meet. 

Thursday 19 December 2019

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

And yet.

For many people, this is anything but “the very best time of the year.”

Even a cursory scan through the news will give you more than a few reasons why. The economy’s struggling, there’s unemployment, there’s environment issues, violence and oppression seem to be thriving, people are on edge and anger seems to be spilling out all over the place.

And that’s the big picture. Look at your community, your neighbours and friends. There are people who are hurting, grieving the loss of a life close to them, grieving the loss of a relationship or a job or a home, struggling with health issues, broken in body, mind and spirit. It’s hard to find the Christmas spirit when your own is cracked and broken.

And yet.

The real story of Christmas - not the lights and trees and decorations, not the parties and the big dinners, not the gifts, not the “traditions” passed on through generations - the real story of Christmas has a special place for the world weary, the tired and the broken.

For all the warm, fuzzy comfort the traditional manger scene presents us with on Christmas Eve, the real story is hardly that. 

No angel says “it’s going to be just fine, don’t worry.” Mary and Joseph don’t say “yes, this is just how I wanted it to happen!” Shepherds don’t book the night off to party with the angels and magi don’t say “this is just what we were expecting.” In fact, an overarching theme of the story isn’t comfort, happiness or celebration, it’s fear. Yes, fear.

What the angel does say, repeatedly, is “don’t be afraid.” I imagine something Mary and Joseph said to each other, repeatedly, as they began their life together with a difficult journey, is “don’t be afraid.” And I’m pretty certain that when the shepherds showed up at the manger - and later on, the magi, too - their first words were likely “don’t be afraid.” I can’t begin to guess the number of people we don’t meet because they’re in the background of the story, but I imagine many of them, living in a poor country, oppressed and afraid, could have used someone in their life who said “don’t be afraid.”

Even more so because I don’t think that’s all that was said. That’s just the first part, “don’t be afraid.” The important part’s the next bit, the important part is the whole point of the story. Don’t be afraid: you’re not alone. God is with you. And so am I.

There’s no promise that the way ahead will be easy or even that things will get better. No one says “it could be worse” or “look on the bright side.” No one says “cheer up” or “you’ll get over it.” No one says “don’t cry.”

What is promised is that the child will show love to the world, a child that, in the Gospel of Matthew’s part of the story, an angel says is the fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah: that the child is Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matt. 1:22-23).

That child will grow up to spend time with the broken, the hurting and the marginalized. He’ll show the poor they have value, he’ll remember the forgotten and show the lonely that they’re not alone. He’ll try to teach us that love is life-giving and that life’s not just about happiness and celebrations but true joy, which we can find in each other, not in things. His life will be about showing us what the story of his birth does: God is with us and God is love, love that is in every heart, not just on Christmas Day, but every day.

Thursday 12 December 2019

What are you expecting?

This whole ”expectation" thing in Advent is tricky, isn’t it?

We even have a hymn for that: "Come, thou long expected Jesus.” It’s on old time classic by Charles Wesley, but we don’t sing it that often anymore. People expect something more contemporary. It’s best to be prepared for it, though.

That’s the two key words we most often use to describe Advent: preparation and expectation. Week after week, we hear scripture readings and perhaps their accompanying sermons calling us to be prepared for the coming of the Messiah who was prophesied. We need to be ready because something's coming.

Yes, something's coming, alright.

I think it’s often easier to get our heads around preparation and expectation than we might think. Too easy, maybe. We know what's coming and there's only these many days left. There's things to do, places to go, people to see, decorations and wrapping and don't forget the concerts, pageants and parties. Gotta be ready. And there's never enough time. Next to Merry Christmas, I bet the most common expressions at this time of year are "are you ready?" and "no."

But you know that already, don't you? You've been there, done that and been told it a hundred times. And on top of that, of course, that isn't the kind of preparation and expectation we mean.

No, perhaps it isn't. On the other hand, we use the same two words, preparation and expectation, we do the same kind of build up to "The Main Event," we tell the same story each year, follow the same traditions each year, even use the same decorations. And we're always trying to top last year.

Maybe the issue's the same: we think we know how to prepare because we know what to expect. We do what we do because we think we know what's coming.  Not only are we expectant, we have expectations. And they're not always met.

But maybe there's another way. We tell this story that’s full of characters that were caught completely off guard with the unexpected. Mary didn't expect to be pregnant. Joseph sure didn't expect that either. And I don't think either of them thought the manger was an ideal place for a baby. The shepherds didn't expect a visit from an angel choir. And the magi, well, I suppose you could argue that they knew the prophecy, but I don't for a moment think they really expected the star to lead them where it did.

None of them were ready. But they were open. Open to the unexpected and the possibilities that come from believing that God was with them.

And because they were, a moment was created, a turning point when prophecy was fulfilled and Word became flesh and a new life began living in a way that would teach us something about how we live.

What if we could hear "be prepared" and "be ready" as "be open?" What if we could be open to the unexpected instead of focused on our own expectation? Maybe we could create another turning point, one that would bring us closer to a world full of God's peace.

One of my favourite tellings of the Christmas story is a video from St.Paul's Church, Auckland, New Zealand, produced by their St. Paul's Arts'N'Kids.  As the children show us, God is in heaven - as only children might imagine it - surrounded by angels, deciding how best to help the people. Each time he reveals a part of his plan (which becomes the Christmas story), the angels react with surprise and amazement. And then, each time, just to punctuate it, one little angel pops up and says "they won't be expecting that!"

Be open this Christmas and let the unexpected find you.

Thursday 5 December 2019

A message for any time or place

There's something magnetic about John the Baptist. Based on his description in the Bible and the words he says there, we have a picture of someone smelly and dirty with wild unkept hair, dressed in animal skins. He came from the wilderness where he lived on locusts and honey. He seems to shout a lot, he’s frequently angry and is often critical of others. He demands repentance and, when he proclaims that the kingdom of God is near and that one mightier than he is coming, it sounds more like a warning than encouragement.  His description of that mightier one as someone who will separate the wheat from the chaff and bring unquenchable fire sounds more fearful than inspiring.

And yet, crowds come to hear him and be baptized by him and to follow him. People seemed to really be paying attention to him. Although, that ultimately lost him his head.

Still, I was thinking that I'd change my style and start preaching like John the Baptist. I won't bathe, I'll grow my hair out (what's left of it) and I'll wear animal skins. And I'll yell at people a lot, maybe even call them "a brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7), and threaten them with judgement and unquenchable fire. I'll pass on the bug eating, that would be gross, but I do like honey. I could probably get my own TV show.

Or be put away.

The thing is, look past the presentation and consider why people listened to John. Because that’s our dilemma of discernment: did people listen because John preached fear or because John preached truth? Many "preachers" today present us with that same dilemma, minus the crazy behaviour and animal skins. Mostly. The yelling is often still there.

How do you hear John's message? Is it that we should repent and turn to a new way because that way is true or that we should repent and turn to a new way … or else?  Is it fear of what could be coming our way or an earthy way to the truth?

I think John had truth and sincerity on his side. His call to repentance and his announcement that something’s coming rang true with people. That's why we hear it in Advent more than other times during the year.

John may easily appear to us as a man "out of time and place,” both by his appearance and by putting him in the weeks leading to Jesus' birth. After all, they were cousins and born months apart. But the words of the adult John calling people to repentance are equally important to the birth of Jesus as they are to his adult ministry.

To repent doesn't mean "sorry," it means to turn away, to make a change, a sea-change of spirit. An old anglican prayer has the best description of repentance as "to turn from your wickedness and live."  This Advent season, John steps out of the wilderness to shout at us, calling us to turn aside and come to Bethlehem, to turn from what keeps us from God and discover that God came to us in a distant Christmas past, is coming to us now and will come again, as Jesus promised, in the future. 

Far from "out of time," John's message of repentance is for all time.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Does anybody really know what time it is?

It’s Advent this week, the beginning of the church year: four Sundays set aside to prepare, watching and waiting for what is to come. Something’s coming and what’s to come is Christmas, isn’t it? The coming of Jesus. Yes it is, but which one may be the question.

The stories we hear in Advent remind us to be ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus over two thousand years ago, how we might see Jesus in the world today and also that Jesus promised to come again in the future. When, Jesus doesn’t say. And that’s the part that many people struggle with, especially those who believe that the return of Jesus is the “it” moment, the day of judgement, the end of things. It would be good to know when that will be, right? Well, no. It’s not about predicting the moment, it’s about being prepared for the moment. Hear me out on this.

The coming of Christmas each year reconnects us to the past, calls us to look around us in the moment and draws us into the future. This is how we prepare, by learning and living now. Jesus encourages us to love, giving his own living as the example. Jesus doesn’t call us to perfection, but to love. Right now. It’s only by taking to heart and living the love the adult Jesus teaches us that we can be ready for the baby Jesus in the manger, this year or any year.

And, let’s be clear, Jesus teaches us to live that love from the heart, not to simply behave as we’re told will get us into heaven. Jesus isn’t like an angelic Elf-on-a-Shelf, watching our every move. Nor is God like that guy judging if you’ve been naughty or nice,  who “sees when you’re sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” I don’t think we get rewarded for behaviour.

Jesus did everything he possibly could, including give his own very human life, to bring us back to a relationship with God that was right and true. A relationship with a God who is love, who offers grace and peace to all and, in the end, welcomes us all home. It’s never about behaviour with Jesus, it’s about living the love that’s in our hearts into our lives. That’s life-giving. And I think that’s what it means to be ready, to be awake and prepared for “that day and hour no one knows.”

I think God means for us to live today and to expect Jesus in this moment and every moment. Not because the end is near, but because the next moment is a beginning, something new. We should expect to meet Jesus, not descending from on high in glory, but coming round a street corner. We should expect Jesus in the next person we meet. I think Jesus will surprise us by being least like what we expect and most like what we should be, so I think we should be open to finding Jesus where and when we don’t expect. We should look for Jesus, not in great churches or cathedrals, but in a stable or a barn.

The thing is, I think, we get all wrapped up in this all-encompassing, cosmic vision of Christ coming in clouds of glory. It’s a cataclysmic, universe changing moment and the universe is a big place. But what if it wasn’t about the universe out there, but your own “universe?” What if it was about just you?

Jesus may be speaking to us as a community, but what if Jesus is calling to each of us to be prepared for ourselves. Having met the Jesus of history and learned from him, having met the Jesus alive in those around us and learned from them, Jesus calls us to be prepared to meet Jesus in person when we pass from this life. Maybe it’s not a great cosmic moment but an everyday one. Are you ready?

Thursday 21 November 2019

How I Know You

It will likely come as no surprise at all when I say that people often respond to things I say or write. Partly because I actively encourage it. I always try to remind people that I’m expressing my thoughts and ideas and hope it will inspire them to think about their own. I don’t have the final, authoritative word, I just try to offer something that I think might be meaningful.

Partly, also, because I, well … I say stuff. Sometimes people don’t care for what I said or how I said it.

Both those things are good, I think, particularly when they inspire some meaningful conversation.

I recently had a phone call from someone who didn’t care for something I’d written in a column. They left a message on my voicemail and, to be more specific, it wasn’t about the content of the column, it was about the manner in which I referred to Jesus.

I wrote about Jesus telling the story of the pharisee and the tax-collector who go to the Temple to pray. It - the column, not the story - began “oh, Jesus. Sometimes you say the darndest things.” Later, I also say “good old Jesus, hanging out with the ‘wrong’ crowd.”

My caller was “saddened” by the way I referred to Jesus. They found “the casual way” I referred to Jesus as “almost blasphemous.” It was “disrespectful” the way I talked about “the Kings of Kings, the Lord of Lords” and “Holy God.”

I’m very glad they called and I’m actually honoured that they shared with me how they know Jesus. I mean that sincerely. I’m sure they’re not alone in how they felt and I appreciate they were bold enough to say so. Furthermore, it opens a door.

The church year ends this week (the new year begins with Advent) and, in many denominations, the last Sunday is known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ. It’s an opportunity to consider how we understand that image of the King of Kings and what it might mean for us today. Many of us will hear about Jesus showing us how to bring the kingdom of God here and how love needs to reign in our hearts.

Maybe it’s also an opportunity to consider how we personally imagine Jesus.

I know the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and I appreciate that image, though I might understand it differently. The biblical source is Revelation 19, though lots of people might know it best as “the other words” that are part of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. It certainly evokes a sense of solemnity, dignity and holiness. I grew up in a tradition where those things were most important and I respect the glory that those things extol.

But I’ve also come to know the Jesus who sat down in the dirt with people who were hurting. I’ve imagined the Jesus who would wade into the river to be baptized by John, the Jesus who wasn’t afraid of being “unclean” by spending time with lepers, the Jesus who, I think, would share food and conversation with people others would rather avoid. That Jesus would listen a lot, but would also be happy to tell a joke and share a laugh and even play with children. That’s the Jesus that would sit down next to you and say “how are you today, my friend?”

I’m not saying the King of Kings wouldn’t do that, I just think we all imagine Jesus in the way that allows us each the best way to connect. Sometimes we look up at the throne of glory, sometimes we look up at the cross and sometimes we look across the table at someone who’s just as ordinary as us.

Thursday 14 November 2019

Hope Lies Ahead

Are you tired? I’m tired.

It’s mid-November and I’m already tired of winter. I know it hasn’t even really started yet. Still, I’m tired of it. But that’s not what I mean.

Like most people, I probably work too much and don’t rest, let alone sleep, enough. But I don’t mean that kind of tired, either. And yes, I know I “only work for an hour on Sunday morning ha ha ha.” That joke gets a little tiring even, but, again, not what I mean.

No, I think it’s something different. This is going to get ugly, so please bear with me to The End.

I’m tired of the angry back and forth when people don’t instantly agree on something. I’m tired of the need to vilify the person when we don’t like their ideas. I’m tired of the lack of compassion towards the poor, the sick and the elderly and the lack of desire to help those who can’t help themselves. I’m tired of the need to be able to say whatever we feel like without any thought or filter, just because we think we should be entitled to. I’m tired of entitlement period. I’m tired of hate and bigotry being justified as opinion because they’re not, they’re hate and bigotry and I wish they stopped. I’m tired of betrayal and I’m tired of being anxious and fearful.

I’m tired of war, in all it’s forms. I’m tired of bombs going off and bullets flying. I’m tired of the destruction and hurt inflicted on people and on the planet. I’m tired of oppression. I’m tired of violence. I’m tired of natural disasters and the disasters our presence inflicts on the earth. I’m tired of hearing that a few hundred died here or thousands there or even one on their way home from the store, as if they’re just numbers.

I’m tired of nations fighting with each other. I’m tired of earthquakes, famine and plagues. I’m tired of reading the news and I’m tired of hearing that being tired of all that makes me a “snowflake.” Winter isn’t coming, it’s here.

Now, if you’re still with me, this wasn’t just a rant. I have a point. I imagine Jesus’ disciples were feeling much the same when Jesus talked about The End.

See, the church year, unlike the calendar year, ends at Advent. Advent begins the new year, anticipating the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. So as we come to the end of the year, we hear scripture readings in church that remind us of, well, The End. And sometimes that can feel like The End is happening right now. And I’m tired of that.

The gospel of Luke records a story of Jesus and the disciples walking in the temple. The disciples are admiring the wonder of the temple, but Jesus says “as for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:6) He proceeds to tell them how The End will come, basically outlining a summary of what I said above. Except, the point isn’t to scare anyone, it’s to give them hope.

Yes, hope. We can so easily become fixated on the pain, the suffering, the destruction, the “dreadful portents and great signs.” But there is no life in that. There is only tiredness and death. But The End will be followed by The Beginning, it always is. The hope is not in the death, but the new life, not in the ending but the beginning.

In Luke, Jesus tells this little apocalypse just before he’s arrested. The disciples will already know the tiredness of what they’ve seen, the fear of the authorities and enemies of Jesus circling. In a few days they will know the grief of the cross. A few days more and the hope Jesus promised them will be real: they will touch the new life that is in him.

I’m still tired. But I have hope, hope that new beginnings are ahead, hope that new life will come because love wins. Always.

Thursday 7 November 2019

Remember to Live

You might have seen this heart-warming story last week. Joshua Dyer, a 14 year old boy from Herefordshire, England, was asked in school to write a poem for a local veterans group concert, part of the Remembrance Day observance this year. He came up with a short piece called “A Thousand Men Are Walking” that was shared on social media and went viral. He’s been on the news, asked to read it at events and even received a note from Prince Phillip who thanked him for “such a moving and heartfelt piece.”

It’s a beautiful poem worth reading, repeatedly even, and easily found on the internet. (That’s a hint to read it, if you haven’t already.)

I find it ties together several themes for Remembrance Day: the sacrifice of so many, the gratitude of those they saved, that they live on in our hearts, that they’re in a better place now where there’s no foes and no war, just a beautiful, tranquil place. I love this image he writes: “they dream of those they left behind and know they dream of them.”

He remembers. And yet, he wasn’t there, nor has he been where they are now. Still, he remembers.

It’s just my opinion, but I think it’s important to understand that remembering isn’t just about memory or history or hanging on to something we’ve experienced or been told. It’s more than that. To remember is to re-connect, to literally re-member that person or moment or experience and bring it into this moment where it becomes part of who and how we are, not in the past, but now.

Joshua reminds us that the dead are still alive in our hearts. We remember why and how they died and, reconnecting with the stories of those moments, I hope we learn something about war and the importance of, as he writes, “the path of peace they paved.” I also hope that we live into honouring that remembrance not just one day of the year, but everyday. Then, it will have become part of who we are and help frame who we will be.

He also doesn’t glorify war. Instead he glorifies where they are now, in the heaven he describes. There, they are also still alive, it seems, dreaming of those they let behind and knowing we dream of them. It’s worth noting, too, that he doesn’t specify who the “one thousand men” are. Only that they’re still alive.

Still alive. Alive in our hearts and alive with God.

There’s a slightly ridiculous sounding story from the gospel of Luke where sadducees (very conservative temple authorities who don’t believe in the resurrection or an afterlife, amongst other things) try to trap Jesus with a question about marriage. Using a Jewish law that requires a Hebrew man to marry the widow of his brother, they set up the improbable scenario where a woman’s husband dies, she marries his brother who also dies and so on through seven brothers. They ask Jesus who she’ll be married to in the next life.

It’s another face-palm moment for Jesus, I think, but it leads to something important. First of all, he says, the next life isn’t like this one. We might imagine it is, for our own comfort, but our human constructs don’t apply there, especially the societal structures that frame their near impossible scenario. Being in the presence of God is just that, where there is love and peace and contentment.

More importantly, says Jesus, God is God of heaven and earth. From God’s perspective, there’s no dead and alive, there’s simply alive, alive in heaven and on earth. God, says Jesus, “is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20:38). Maybe our earthly view needs opening up a bit.

I wonder if that might not help our remembering this Remembrance Day. God is God of the living. Those who sacrificed are alive in our hearts and alive with God. We who are living this life, remember and honour them by living into the life they made possible, one where freedom provides the opportunity for peace, compassion, grace and love. Joshua’s “one thousand men” are walking in peace; “they do not march for war.” Perhaps when he writes “they dream of those they left behind and know they dream of them” we could remember the dream we all share is life.

Thursday 31 October 2019

See And Be Seen

Why is Zacchaeus short?

If you’re not familiar with the story, the gospel of Luke records that Jesus was passing through Jericho and the local chief tax collector, a guy named Zacchaeus, comes out to see him with the rest of the crowds. Jesus meets him and invites himself over to his house for supper, something which upsets the crowd, of course. Tax collectors are evil. (No offence to Revenue Canada. Please don’t audit me.)

Zacchaeus, though, joyfully declares that he’s giving away half his fortune to the poor and paying back anyone he might have over taxed. Jesus responds that “salvation has come to this house” because he came to seek and save the lost. Mission accomplished. The end.

Except. There’s some added detail. First of all, Zacchaeus gets a name, something that doesn’t often happen when Jesus meets people. More often than not, they’re “the rich man” or “the blind man” or “the lepers” or even “a Samaritan.” Zacchaeus means “innocent” or “pure,” by the way. 

And he’s short. “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.”

Wait. What?

Listen, I’m not being ridiculous about this. More often than not, the gospels tell stories with a certain economy of detail. One of my favourite things to do is try to figure out how what’s missing in the story might help us understand it better or at least give us another avenue to explore. But this time, it’s the opposite. Why do we need to know he’s short and has to climb a tree to see Jesus? And what’s with the name? He’s a tax collector, isn’t that all we need to know: he’s “a sinner?” 

Here’s a thought. Maybe it’s not about being able to see, but rather be seen. By Jesus. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus would have been well enough known by the community, but being of diminutive stature would have helped him hide in the crowd. Being in a tree, though, would have made it not only easier to see Jesus, but for him to be seen by Jesus. And it works, of course.

He’s also seen by everyone else, though, and the crowd’s not happy about Jesus going to his house for supper. Not only is Zacchaeus not intimidated - either by the crowd or Jesus - he has an announcement to make. Maybe he’s a better man than we think.

There’s some question as to the tense of his declaration in different translations. Is he saying that he will give away half his fortune and will pay back others in the future or is he saying that he does it already, in the present, as part of how he does business? Either way, he wants both Jesus and the crowd to know he is not what they think and Jesus is happy to accommodate him.

We sure know what the crowd thought of Zacchaeus before, but we don’t get to see if their view of him was changed by this moment of embracing Jesus. I wish we could, because I wonder if this story is about Zacchaeus being the lost who is found or the crowd. If the real Zacchaeus was invisible to them before, has he been seen now? Have their assumptions - and ours - been tested and have they found a way to see him differently?

Thursday 24 October 2019

It's a trap!

Oh, Jesus. Sometimes you say the darndest things.

It’s another one of those tricky parables, a simple story on the surface, but with a deeper,  more powerful question to wonder about. We’re still travelling with Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and he’s been teaching important lessons with these short, pithy parables. Here’s one about a pharisee and a tax-collector who both come to pray at the same time.

Good for them, you might think, because, when last we left Jesus in Luke, he was talking about the importance of being persistent in prayer. And, just like before, the author of Luke sets up this story by telling you what it’s about: “He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).

It goes like this. A pharisee (a leader in the temple) and a tax-collector go to the temple to pray. The pharisee gets right in there and shares a prayer of thanksgiving, thankful that he’s not like others who are bad - you know, those people - and especially like the tax-collector he sees nearby. Not only does he pray, he fasts and he tithes, just like he’s supposed to. The tax-collector stays back and, from a distance, seems contrite and prays for mercy because he’s a sinner.

Jesus wraps it up with pointing out it’s the tax-collector who’s made right with God. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” says Jesus, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Right. Simple enough. Be like the tax-collector. Sure.

Besides, we read the bible, we know pharisees are bad, right? And Jesus often hangs out with tax-collectors, so they must be good. In fact, reading ahead, he’s about to meet Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector, and go to his house for dinner. Good old Jesus, hanging out with the “wrong” crowd. Thank goodness it wasn’t one of those pharisees. Hate to be one of those people.

Yes. It’s a trap.

Simple story, but it’s a parable and here’s some things to consider. Pharisees aren’t all bad. Many, in fact, were trying to live as scripture told them. Jesus often has run-ins with them and critiques them particularly harshly, but maybe Jesus expects more of those with a privileged life, particularly the privilege of knowing the scriptures and the law as pharisees should. Pharisees simply aren’t inherently bad. Our view of them is skewed by their role in the bible as a foil for Jesus.

This one, in particular, might seem particularly braggy, but there’s nothing to suggest that he’s wrong about his assessment of himself. Maybe he’s just struggling, like that Mac Davis classic: “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”

Tax-collectors, on the other hand, were despised for good reason: they were sell-outs who collected for the Roman occupation, often enriching themselves in the process by over-taxing the poor. It should be easy for him to see what’s wrong with this picture.

But, put our preconceived ideas to work with Jesus’ punchline and we’re falling into the trap that we all have to struggle with: not only do want to be like the tax-collector, we want to be thankful that we’re not like that pharisee. Humility isn’t a contest and it’s lost the moment it becomes one.

It’s not their roles or even their outward behaviour we need to wrestle with here. It’s their honesty and their awareness of their own self. The one who is right with God is the one who speaks sincerely from the heart, the one who knows who they truly are, beyond their behaviour, the one who knows they are a child of God and asks for mercy, believing God’s grace will help them be better. Not better than others, just a better me.

The pharisee may be honest about what he does and how he lives. He could be sincere in his thanks to God. Where he lost his way was in seeing all that as making him better than his neighbour, as a way to set himself apart from others, rather than bring him to the love and care of others. 

Thursday 17 October 2019

What if it's not just a nice story, but a discerning parable?

There’s a federal election in Canada very soon. Please be sure to vote, if you haven’t already.

That’s all, just please vote.

I won’t say more about that, but I will just add that I think the gospel story this week is rather timely. And I’ll certainly talk about that.

In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a story about a widow who persistently takes her case to a judge, seeking justice. Jesus doesn’t give any details about the case, only that she seeks justice and is persistent. She has to be, as it happens, because the judge “neither fears God or cares what people think” and is happy to ignore her. At first. But she’s so persistent that he finally decides to give her what she wants, not because it’s justice, but because he’s tired of her and afraid she’ll give him a “black eye” in front of the community.

Jesus then says even this judge gave in to her persistence. So how do you think God will answer? God answers quickly to those who call out, answering their prayers and bringing justice.

It seems pretty clear that Jesus is encouraging the disciples to be like the persistent widow. Be persistent in prayer and don’t give up, God will answer because God does answer. The author of Luke thinks so, too, because they preface the story with “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” That seems pretty clear. And good point, too.

But it’s a parable, not just a story, and parables can have many sides.

What if this weren’t just a story affirming persistence, but a parable asking us to examine how we listen and respond?

What if we’re not the widow and God’s not the judge. What if we’re the judge, as self-centred and uncaring as this judge. What if God’s the persistent voice of the widow. Or the hungry. Or the poor. Or the sick. What if God’s the persistent voice of justice and we’re not listening?

What if this parable might simply be asking us just that: “are we listening?” Are we hearing the persistent cries of the marginalized and the needy? And are we ignoring them as the judge does or are we listening with compassion and care? Are we acting when it suits us, as the judge does, or will we be the image of God and see that “they get justice, and quickly?”

As we wonder if God’s listening to us, maybe we should wonder if we’re listening to each other. Jesus would ask us to do both.

Thursday 10 October 2019

Thanksgiving for Life

“Come, you thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest-home! All is safely gathered in, safe before the storms begin.” 

It’s Thanksgiving this week, in this part of the world anyway, and these words by Henry Alford are probably going to be sung a lot. They’re the opening lines of a chestnut of a hymn that’s been around since the mid 19th century. I guess it’s one of those “old time-y” traditions that are part of the warm, homestyle feeling of Thanksgiving.

I’ve always kind of liked the first two verses. They’re all about the harvest and how God provides for us and we grow and are nurtured just like the crops. Not such a big fan of the next two verses though. They’re more about the harvest of us and how we’re gathered home in the final harvest. It’s all good, I just prefer the relentlessly hopeful tone of “all is safely gathered in, safe before the storms begin.” Especially when winter arrives early and “all” isn’t safely gathered in.

But, again, olden days, right? Harvest festivals have been around since we were celebrating the mystery of how things grew and thanking “the spirits,” Mother Nature and God for all the great bounty we receive from the land. There’s another classic many will sing this week, “We plough the fields.” The chorus proclaims “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; we thank you, God, O holy God, for all your love.”

Yes, “all your love.” So, for many people, Thanksgiving’s become less about thanks for harvest and more about thanks for things in general, like all of creation and family and home, big stuff like that, and turkey dinners and an extra day off and time to clean up in the yard or enjoy the fall colours, if there’s no snow.

Those are all great things, the list is endless, and yes, we should surely be thankful for them, absolutely. Every single day, we should be thankful for creation, family, home, food and rest. But, at this time of year, it’s most appropriate to remember the harvest, all “safely gathered in” or not, with a day set aside replete with its own festive trimmings. And so we thank God for all that great bounty of creation. Right: thank you God. Done.


Of course we thank God for all the gifts of creation, but what about being thankful for those who bring those gifts into our lives with their labour? Jesus calls us to a life of living well with each other and creation, to using the gifts God gives us to share with others and care for others. I think a pretty solid example of doing the best we can with the gifts God gives us is a farmer.

With their own personal gifts, they work with others, with machines, with science and with nature - surely the toughest relationship of all - to feed us. Now, I know we pay farmers adequate compensation for their labour. (Brief pause to allow for laughter.) But paying them for their product does not thank them for providing the means for us to live. That is what they do. It’s not just about making a buck, it’s a vocation that feeds people. And it’s not the only one.

Jesus spoke about being “the bread of life,” the food that feeds our hearts and minds, not our stomachs. But Jesus coupled that with a command to care for the physical wellbeing of others, to feed the hungry and care for the poor really, not just as a metaphor. In a sense, we’re all called to be like farmers, aren’t we, to work with the world around us, to care for the world around us and to feed the world around us, to nurture and grow life? It’s both powerfully real and powerfully metaphorical.

Maybe we should sing these words every year, too, from a more recent hymn by Brian Wren: “Praise God for the harvest of orchard and field, praise God for the people who gather the yield, the long hours of labour, the skills of a team, the patience of science, the power of machine ... Praise God for the harvest of mercy and love from leaders and peoples, who struggle and serve for fairness and kindness, that all may be led in freedom and safety, and all may be fed.”

Thursday 3 October 2019

Oh Lord, make me more

Lately, we’ve been making our way through the Gospel of Luke. We’re mid-gospel, Jesus has turned towards Jerusalem (spoiler alert: I won’t tell you what happens there) and, on his way there with the disciples, there’s some pretty dense teaching with a lot of stories. Parables of the the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward (or the Shrewd Manager - it’s more an “and” than “or,” but it’s just a title and I’ve talked about that already), the Rich Man and Lazarus, sin and forgiveness and more. And there’s going to be more.

But, right in the middle of it now, it kind of seems like the disciples are feeling a little overwhelmed. Maybe we are too, and not just with this story. I’ll come back to that, but the disciples, they seem to be overwhelmed and they “said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5, NRSV) I could be wrong - and it’s not just the exclamation mark talking - but I think the disciples are feeling just a little exasperated. This is a lot of stuff, probably in a short time, they’re the ones who are the “chosen” followers, the close companions and I wonder if they aren’t just feeling a little pressure, a little frustration that they’re not getting it fast enough and maybe even some stress that living all this out might be challenging. Difficult, even. You know, like life is.

So they ask for help. And Jesus, well, I just picture Jesus doing another one of those face palms and, as he’s done other times, giving an outrageous request an equally outrageous answer. It’s all about mustard seeds moving mulberry trees and servants being rewarded for doing their jobs and simply doing what we’re supposed to. (Luke 17:5-10)

Here’s the thing. First of all, they’re on the right track. They don’t seem to know it, but they are. They don’t say “Oh Lord, make me smarter” or “Oh Lord, make me more wise or understanding or imaginative.” They ask for faith. They know it’s about faith.

The part they stumble at is “give me more.” So Jesus answers with some humour and some foolishness. The point is that you can’t quantify faith. All the faith you need is in you, just use it.

Faith, like God, simply is. There’s no faithometer. It is. You can’t go to church or read your Bible to top up when you’re low, that’s where you might go to learn what it can do. It isn’t about how much faith, it’s what you do with it. It needs to be exercised. And daily.

That’s why Jesus likens it to servants doing their jobs (remember, it was the 1st century) and, ultimately, people doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Faith isn’t just for special moments or for an hour on Sunday morning, it’s for everyday. It’s for the mountains and the valleys. It’s for sharing the joy of celebration and sitting quietly with grief. It’s for the love we give and the love we receive. It’s for grace. “Put these things into action every day, just like I’m showing you,” I think Jesus would say, “and you will know you have all the faith you need. Think about the stories I just told: love extravagantly (Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, Prodigal Son), engage the world where the world is (Unjust/Shrewd Steward), care for others and build relationships (Rich Man and Lazarus) and forgive, forgive, forgive (seven times a day).”

Maybe Jesus should have made the disciples play musical instruments. I know that sounds random, but hear me out. I used to be a musician (still am, I guess, but just for fun) and I still play the piano a bit. I know, as any musician does, that the more you play, the better you are. “Better” isn’t really the right word, though, because it’s not about the volume (pun intended), the mechanics or the technique (which hopefully do improve), it’s about the music. No, sorry, practice doesn’t make perfect. What it makes is more music. The world could use more music.

And more life. That’s the kind of faith Jesus is talking about. One that lives. Everyday.

Thursday 26 September 2019

What if

I’ve been known to express some pretty progressive, even radical, ideas here. As always, I hope that I’ve also been clear that, in sharing my beliefs, I have no expectation that others will share them, nor that anyone would agree or understand them as “right” just because I said them. Rather, I hope to make people think and wonder for themselves in the further hope that it might expand their own sense and understanding of how they know God.

Sometimes, I find something I believe - that I’ve shared - appears to be contradicted by a biblical text. Even, say, by something Jesus himself says. “Aha!” you might think, “what do you have to say to that, Robin!” And I say thank you, Jesus, for this opportunity to challenge my thinking and make me think even more.

There’s a great example on tap this week. The gospel story is from Luke. It’s Jesus telling a story about a rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar. While the rich man feasts, poor Lazarus suffers in agony at his gate, cast aside and ignored. When each dies, Lazarus is carried by angels to be with Abraham in heaven, the rich man is consigned to torment in Hades. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to help him, but Abraham says no, the rich man had his good times, it’s Lazarus’ turn, and now there’s a great chasm between them. So the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family about how they could end up. Again Abraham says no, that’s what Moses and the prophets are for, and if they won’t listen to them, they won’t listen if a dead man comes back to visit them. (Just as an aside, Marley didn’t have any success with Scrooge, either, he needed the ghosts.)

Okay, so there’s probably a lot to unpack here, but, just for now, can I focus on where Jesus challenges my beliefs for a moment. I think it’ll actually get us to the heart of the story faster.

Jesus says the rich man goes to “Hades.” If you’ve read me before, you might know that I don’t believe that there’s a hell, not in the traditional sense. I believe that God’s love and grace is for everyone. To me, that means we all come from God and we all return to God. No one goes to hell for eternal torment.

I double down on that, too, because I believe that sin is the choices we make that distance us from God, however we understand God. I’m still loathe to use the expression, but if there’s a hell, then this is it. When we sin, here, it puts us as far from God as we can get.

So what do you say, Robin, when Jesus himself says there is one?

Well, first I’d say I’m not entirely convinced Jesus did mean hell in this story, not the way we understand it anyway. But that’s a bigger, more academic debate for another time and, besides, it’s not my real answer. Hang on, this is going to be one of those “what if Jesus meant this?” answers.

What if Jesus wasn’t really interested in the future destination of the rich man and Lazarus? What if the point of “the great chasm” (Luke 16:26) that separates them after death was simply meant to point you back to the great chasm that separates them in life?

What if the point of this story was to draw your attention to the relationship or, more importantly, the lack of relationship between the two characters? The rich man seems to ignore Lazarus in life, but in the afterlife he knows his name. But even then, the rich man doesn’t talk to Lazarus, he talks to Abraham.

What if the rich man had engaged Lazarus in life? What if he got to know him, helped him and shared with him? It wouldn’t be just Lazarus that would benefit. If nothing else, the rich man would have a friend, but maybe Lazarus would have been more than that. If nothing else, the rich man would have taught others, his family included, about living the love that’s in us and built a sense of community. If nothing else, their relationship with each other would then reflect their relationship with God. It would reflect God.

And wouldn’t that be heaven? Both of them engaging in a relationship of mutual understanding and support: that would bring the God’s kingdom to earth now.

What if that’s what this is all about?