Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Tied Together

Lectionary readings for World Communion Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. Exodus 20:1-20, Psalm 19, Matthew 21:33-46, Philippians 3:4-14

I'm really looking forward to this Sunday! This year, Mennonite Church Canada asked Adela Wedler (a musician and great worship planner) and myself to write materials for World Communion Sunday. The resource is available on the Mennonite Church Canada website.

It was a good experience, reading the scriptures months ahead and shaping worship service ideas with another person who loves to do this too.We wanted to pay attention to the idea that our churches are diverse, yet because of Christ, we are all tied together. Our observation of communion on this day is symbolic of that greater unity in the church.

We noticed that all the scriptures have something to do with the celebration of God's good law. Often we think of law as constrictive or limiting. God's law, however, is meant to be freeing. It provides a framework within which all people are treated as loved children.

The ten commandments are a familiar list of "rules." In order to show how rules can be helpful and freeing, I wrote a children's story about some friends who decided that soccer would be more fun without rules. My son drew the illustrations (a bonus for me, getting to work with him, and the pictures are great!)

Psalm 19 rejoices in the way that God's laws 'revive the soul." The way that good laws set people free is a fantastic message in a culture obsessed with personal freedom and individual rights. The law helps us to look to the good of our neighbours-another way to foster unity in the midst of our diversity.

Both the Matthew and Philippians pieces focus on how the intent and meaning of the law are more important than legalistic obedience to it. This is particularly glaring in the story of the wicked tenants. Instead of following through with the punishment the tenants deserve, the landowner keeps on trying to find new ways to get the tenants to understand that they are being offered new life and hope through God's ways. God applies the laws in freeing and unusual ways that invite, rather than coerce, cooperation.

The message of the need for good boundaries and laws, and the grace to apply those laws in life-giving and flexible ways, is an amazing message for today's church. When issues, diverse cultural understandings, and a complicated society threaten to isolate churches from each other, we do well to remember these passages. The Bible provides good guidelines, but it is Christ who ties us together in surprising ways.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Definitely not a Doormat!

Lectionary  Passages for Sept.28: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Psalm 25:1-9, Phil. 2:1-13, Matt 21:23-32

Sour grapes. Here's where the phrase comes from! When the parents eat sour grapes-the children's teeth are set on edge. That's not right, why would the children have to suffer because of the parent's poor choice of fruit? It is obvious that the actions of parents affect children-the parents provides the atmosphere the children grow up in and learn from-but that's missing the point a bit here.

Ezekiel is telling the people that individuals have to be responsible for their own actions, that they cannot continue to blame subsequent generations for historic sins. They can't hold the child to the debt the parent incurred. (this is fair, but certainly irritating for those trying to collect!) Like any normal human being, these people would rather spread the blame around to take the focus off of themselves. It makes me think of times when I've confronted my children with some transgression. Instead of focusing on what they did, the first impulse is often to blame the sibling. "Yes, but he told me to do it!" or "yes, but he did it too!" I've tried to respond well by saying something like; "Right now I don't care what your brother did, I want you to think about what you did."

We can only control our own actions, and ultimately, we are responsible for the bad and the good that come out of them. We have to resist crying out the "unfair" buzzword (see verse 25) and take responsibility for ourselves. We also are encouraged to allow others to change. We can't keep remembering the transgressions of the past and not allowing people to grow. God is the ultimate judge who wants all people to "turn and live."

Psalm 25 encourages an amazing and humble attitude for change. The psalmist petitions God to save him from shame, leaves any retribution to God (v 3), and then humbly focuses on an attitude of learning that occupies the rest of the Psalm. It's amazing. I wonder what could happen for groups of people if we took responsibility for our own actions with an attitude like this. It perhaps doesn't address big problems, but it does give each individual a place to start in any situation.

Phillipians also pushes this humble attitude, encouraging us to imitate Christ who "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...) This is amazing, a mandate to put aside selfish interest to serve others.  This, however, can easily be misinterpreted and turn Christians into doormats, people so humble and self-effacing that they get walked on.  That's not what is offered here. Jesus was no doormat. In fact, he could be downright blunt in addressing injustice where he saw it. He often spoke out publicly against the powerful leaders who thought too much of themselves. Those who could change their ways were included even among his disciples! (Think of Matthew-who traditionally is thought to have been a tax collector, yet he is also traditionally thought of as the author of the gospel that emphasizes the gospel and ethics, faith and morality.)

In the Matthew story, Jesus certainly doesn't lay down for others to wipe their feet on him. He challenges the scribes and pharisees to treat him with the same respect he would show them. When they do not, he refuses to answer their question. Definitely not a doormat, and yet definitely open to change. The next parable has the story of the son who at first refused to work for his father, then later changed his mind and did what was asked. This son is proclaimed as faithful! Change, although it does not always happen, is possible!

Friday, 19 September 2014

Meant to be Ridiculous...and Meaningful

Lectionary Readings for Sept. 21, 2014. Jonah 3:10-4:11, Ps 145:1-8, Phil. 1:21-30, Matt. 20:1-16

It's funny to me that the story of Jonah and the whale is one of the favourites of Sunday School, taught to children and accompanied by great pictures from the imaginations of artists. As a child, I thought the story was kind of ridiculous. I wanted to believe it, but it didn't make sense. The adults in church taught the story in such a serious way that my choices seemed to be either to accept it as factual truth, or lump it into the same category as Santa and the Easter Bunny. Put it into the category of "weird things adults say to hide the truth."

As an adult I've had fun studying this story. I've come to love it for it's humorous style and it's message.

The style is stand-up comedy. Really. This was meant to be told/read out loud with expression and drama and characterization. I imagine people gathered around a fire, laughing and enjoying the telling. The book is entirely narrative. Unlike other prophetic books, there are no long oracles, it's just story with an important message. The characterization of Jonah is hilarious. He is a caricature, an unbelievably obtuse individual. The idea that he (especially as a prophet) tries to run from God is absurd. Then he's dense and insensitive enough to fall asleep in a boat during a storm. (Note: when Jesus sleeps in the boat it was because he trusted in God and was not afraid. Jonah is very different!) He shows a flash of courage when he finally, after much interrogation, admits that he's at fault and offers to be thrown overboard. The courage of the sailors, however, is at least as admirable! For the sake of one, Jonah, they try desperately to get to shore, risking their own lives until there is no choice but to toss him into the waves.

Then the fish-wow that's funny. Finally, forced into a corner (of an intestine) Jonah prays. It's stinky and the idea that Jonah gets vomited onto the shore is funny. Finally he does what God asks, but only because he wants to see Ninevah destroyed. When that doesn't happen, he is petulant, a tantrum-throwing little child. He doesn't even want to live if Ninevah is spared. What a contrast to the sailors who worked so hard to try to save this one sorry excuse of a prophet! Here the one prophet is willing to watch the death of thousands and unable to see past himself.

The message is great. God is in charge, we are not. We are to obey, think of the welfare of others, and rejoice in God's ability to save those we think cannot be saved. We have to be humble and able to rejoice in the good fortune and outcomes of others, even when it doesn't seem right or fair to us. (See Matt. 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard for a great parallel message.)

How might we hear scriptures differently if we read them the way they might have been intended? Try reading Jonah out loud as a comedy/drama. It's fun!

(a post script: Jonah is a whole story, a short story. It really doesn't make sense to read just the closing paragraph like the lectionary suggests. This is another way we miss the style of the story, and maybe some of the message1)

Friday, 5 September 2014

Crucial Conversations in the Church

Lectionary Passages for Sept. 7, 2014. Ezekiel 33:7-11, Ps 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matt. 18:15-21

I read the Matthew 18 passage with a mixture of thoughts, feelings, and varying ideas. My Bible subtitles this familiar passage with; "Reproving another who sins."

I can't help it, it makes me think of self-righteous finger shaking, condescension, and heavy handedness.

I wonder why I feel this way, because the passage is meant to be the opposite of those things. (In Matt. 5:38, Jesus says; "you've heard it said, 'an eye for an eye...but I say to you do not resist an evildoer...turn the other cheek...) I think this passage, giving guidelines for reprisal, should be taken in this light. Jesus is scaling back on heavy handed discipline and providing guidelines for a process of reconciliation. A process that is respectful of persons, yet takes boundaries very seriously.

Applied well, this is excellent! Most difficulties between individuals can, and often are, resolved quietly and don't go public.

In theory, I love this model. In practise, I hesitantly like it, acknowledging that it can be brutally hard work and doesn't always meet with success. In fact, when something is bad enough to blow up publicly, bridges get burned and things are often beyond repair. I suffer from being an idealist, maybe its all those stories with happy endings I heard as a kid, and still love. I like to believe that if I do everything the right way, or at least to the best of my ability, the ending will be happy. Life, however, teaches that it ain't so! Life isn't always fair and logical. Success is not guaranteed and  maybe not even likely once a problem moves beyond a few people, but it's even more important that good process be followed.

We've all likely heard stories of how Matt. 18 has been hurtful and misused. I remember cases where people (usually cases of unmarried pregnancy) were pushed to "confess" sin in front of the church. Thank God this is not common practise anymore! Instead of restoring people to community, it seemed to further ostracise and humiliate. Hmmm. How come I never heard of anyone having to confess their hurtful gossipping, or financial cheating, or lusting, some other sin in front of everyone? Here is one of the problems. The good process was never meant to be a "big stick" or a punishment, and it was meant for use when someone's actions were hurtful to another.

I do like that this passage takes boundary crossing, things that are hurtful, seriously. Too often, at least in the contemporary Mennonite church, we don't speak forthrightly about hard things. Instead, we do the wishful thinking that pretends that silence will result in happy endings, that the first step of private address always works. Matthew is practical, it does say that "offenders" sometimes don't listen and then become "like a Gentile or tax-collector" and outside of the core fellowship.

Maybe the best way to look at this passage is through the lenses provided by verse 20 and following. Verse 20 is a reminder that we need each other, that when the group gathers in Jesus' name, he will be there with us. The verses that immediately follow these guidelines deal with forgiveness. A topic on which Jesus is generous and challenging. The gathered church is to be forgiving in actions and attitudes. This does not negate the seriousness of what has gone before, the hurt and sin must stop, but the body is challenged to be forgiving in attitude-bridges cannot be burned.

Perhaps another way to look at this is also helpful. Try reading it from the perspective of the sinner, the one to whom someone comes to point out the fault. Ask yourself; how do I respond? Do I listen well and consider the other? If witnesses are brought along, and a trusted group from the church has a concern against me, am I willing to take their counsel? Can I admit being wrong? It's interesting and humbling to think the passage through from this perspective. Chances are, in our lifetimes, we will be on both sides of the equation at some time or other. So, how do we do this important stuff well? It's hard enough for an individual, how can we do this as a church?

I'd be interested to hear the comments and sharing of stories from others. How does this passage make you feel? Think? Is it helpful?

A great resource that a small group from our church discovered at a communication seminar is called: "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High."  If anyone would like to see the book, I've got a copy in the church office. It's also readily available at any Chapters bookstore or through Amazon.