Thursday, 26 November 2015

Fragile, surprising hope.

Nov. 29, 2015.

First Advent and the countdown to Christmas is here already! It's funny to me, how every year this still seems surprising. While we are more than ready to see light in this season of darkness and hear of hope in a world of fear, we can't quite believe it. We can't quite get our heads around the idea that the loud, destructive powers of greed and war and injustice can ever be conquered by the fragile love represented by an ancient story of a refugee baby. I need this story every year to remind myself that hope is alive, that love is stronger than darkness, that God is in control.

Jeremiah33:14-16, Ps. 25:1-10, 1 Thess. 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

Jeremiah is gloomy and doomy. He was a prophet during the reign of 5 kings, ending with Zedekiah and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. (Easy to remember that "Zed" is the last!) His nation is teetering on the brink of being overrun by Babylon. Zedekiah has Jeremiah incarcerated in his courtyard to shut him up, to stop his message from "demoralizing" the troops. Surprising then, that at exactly the point where things are darkest, Babylon is at the gates and Jeremiah is in prison, that Jeremiah speaks words of hope. He even buys land as a symbol that eventually the people will return.

It is a surprising place and time for hope to be expressed. It is surprising for Jeremiah to expresses hope, knowing that it is not for him, but for God's people somewhere in the future. The story he rejoices in is corporate, huge beyond the scope of him as an individual.

The Luke 21 passage is awful and necessary. It's kind of an antidote to the shallow glitz of Santa and seasonal partying. We read something like this every first Advent to come face to face with the need for hope, for a new world order, for God to intervene. This year, we read this passage with images of desperate refugees, of governments bogged down in logistics and pressured by fear, of job losses and worry. The need for hope isn't new, isn't surprising.

I have been surprised by some of the fears and negative attitudes toward refugees I've heard expressed in the media. Unfortunately, I've been even more surprised to hear these same fears and attitudes expressed by church people-even a few in my own church. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, we are all just human, but how can we hear God's word Sunday after Sunday and still be so fearful and slow to respond to desperate needs? Our congregation is responding well-generously preparing to sponsor refugees-but we still need education and help to overcome our fears and help the world around us to deal with fear too.

During the season of advent, God's people are called to face the darkness and name it like Jeremiah did. Then, like Jeremiah, we are to recall God's promises and act in hope even when that hope seems ridiculous. We may not see the full revelation of the promise in our lifetimes, but the bits of hope and fulfillment we do see are important.

That fragile love is surprisingly strong.

Question: Faced with bad news on the world front (and maybe personally as well) where do you find hope? How can that spark grow into a light that banishes the dark?

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Discussing Sin

Blog post for Nov. 22, 2015
Rev. 1:4-8, John 18:33-37, Ps. 93

This week I depart from the usual, I want to discuss a bit what we heard last week before I get to working on this Sunday.

Last week Dan Graber, our conference minister grappled with the topic “Is sin irrelevant?” I had called it the “uncomfortable” topic in my pre-service blog, and it certainly was! Sin is not a word we use much, it’s not a concept we define clearly, and it is uncomfortable to consider where we might be going wrong in our individual and corporate lives.

Dan didn’t make everyone happy, he said a few uncomfortable and controversial things. I agreed with some bits and took issue with others, however,  I love the conversations that came out of this sermon! There was great fodder for discussion for the young adult gathering around our fireplace that evening.
First, we tackled our definition of sin. Our general agreement was that sin separates us from good relationships with God, other people, and creation.  We don’t like the idea of a Victorian style list of sins. We agreed that situations matter. We were also agreed that complete relativism is also not the way to go. There are some things that are clearly sin, like murder and infidelity. These things ruin relationships.
Next we talked about Dan’s comment that the world is getting worse. He mentioned how each generation claims that the one following it is “going to pot”.  He didn’t think it was true in the past, but that it is true now, that today’s younger generations and society are treating sin as “irrelevant” and that we don’t take it seriously anymore.

The young adults at my home disagreed. It’s not that younger folks don’t talk about sin-but they talk about it differently. Many young adults are well informed world citizens, conversant and concerned about environmental, justice, and ethical issues. Their faith must be relevant to these issues and able to engage a multi-cultural society. They do talk about right and wrong, but they don’t use the vocabulary of sin because it feels archaic and exclusive to white, middle class culture. There is a reaction against sin language that seems to harken back to Victorian black and white values and list making. To a time when absolutes were publically unquestioned and those who didn’t fit the Christendom model of clean-shaven, untattoed, non-smoking, non-dancing, non-drinking, Sunday church goer, were labeled as the wrong crowd, the sinners.
If anything seems to define the emerging culture of engaged, faithful, young adults, I wonder if it might be the ability (and great need) to ask questions. They need to be able to creatively think through complex situations, very little is black and white. Issues are acknowledged as situational, context is crucial.

I think this is faithful and theologically consistent with the Bible. Jesus constantly challenged his cultures ideas of sin. He ate with the “sinners”, talked with outcasts, provided wine at a wedding…and yet constantly challenged the establishment with questions. He advocated for the poor and crippled, he enraged the establishment. His first allegiance truly was to God.

In my (long ago) Pauline studies, I learned that Paul was always situational. He responded to and counselled churches according to their needs and issues. Sometimes this means that he is inconsistent, that he gives conflicting advice to churches. He is frustratingly convoluted at times. This is both an infuriating problem and a gift to us later interpreters. Paul is hard to understand, to pull absolutes from, but his inconsistency and relativism is a gift in that it frees us to THINK! We are encouraged to apply new knowledge in faithful ways. We must always adapt and grow in our thinking and relevance to changing situations and issues.
Romans 7:14-25 (from last week) does exactly this!

Paul doesn’t make lists, but challenges himself to be better, to do what he knows is right. Then he rejoices in God’s grace-knowing that he won’t ever get it all right. He will always be a sinner and God is still able to redeem him.

Getting to the scripture for Nov.22, I love the piece in Rev. that affirms that God was, is, and is to come. No matter how badly humanity behaves, God is there, is in charge, always promises to be with us as we struggle. I don’t think we are necessarily getting any worse, or any better, we are just changing. Only by the grace of God will we ever be saved from ourselves. That is Amazing Grace!

 (I also enjoy reading the piece from John where Pilate is interogating Jesus. Pilate's question; "what is truth?" is particularly poignant. I always hear him saying it in a wistful, longing way. This is hard. Life is hard to figure out. We  can only do our best, and rely on God.)

Questions: How do you define sin? Do you feel the world is getting worse or better? Is discussing sin irrelevant or crucial to us as a people of faith?

Saturday, 14 November 2015

An Unpopular Topic!

Dan Graber, Mennonite Church Alberta conference minister, is our speaker for Nov. 15. He has chosen Romans 7:14-25, a passage that talks about our human propensity toward sin.

I'm losing 10 pounds. In the interest of keeping ankles and knees functional into my senior years, I want to take the stress of them now, and keep it off for the 30 pus years.

At least that is what I want, but I am a slave to zesty cheese Doritos. I do not understand what I do when I snack before bed.I want to stop eating after a modest supper, but I do not. I go ahead and eat the hateful fatty deliciousness, all the while knowing that the rule of not eating before bed is good. I am so trapped by habit that it is no longer me doing it, but the craving living in me....

There are ways every person resonates with Paul's message in Romans 7. While we know what is good for us and others, we still find ourselves, like automatons, doing the very things that we want to stop doing.

It's a helpful way to bring up a topic most of us do not want to address. Sin. It can be an uncomfortable topic because of disagreements over the definition and our ideas of judgement/consequences. Staying with this passage, for the moment, Paul's definition is rather clear. He is not doing the things he understand to be right, he is actively doing what he knows is wrong. We can argue the definitions forever, allowing us to avoid doing anything about those things we already understand. We already understand that greed is wrong, but it seems very few people are free of the desire for more than their share. We know we are hurting the environment, but we don't even do the simple things, (like turning down the heat, line drying instead of using the dryer, walking, using public transit, driving less....) that are easy to do because we can't seem to stop ourselves from taking the easy way out.

What about speaking up against injustice? In the last few weeks, both my husband and I have found ourselves in the middle of conversations where the predominant expressed view is judgement and condemnation of Muslim people and Syrian refugees. "Islamophobia" is prevalent in our supposedly enlightened and educated society!!!We both managed to speak up a little against the unfair stereotyping, but it is remarkably hard to do, and to do it in a way that helps instead of hinders the discussion. We know it is right to speak for justice, but it can be very difficult to say anything into a group situation where a few loud voices are setting the tone.

When we read Romans, we tend to think of sin as limited to individual actions, but for Paul, it is almost (and maybe mostly) about power. It is about being caught up in systems and feeling helpless to speak against them.

There is challenge here for the individual to stop "doing what they hate" and to do what they know is right. That takes courage. It takes courage to speak into groups. It takes courage to speak into systems that perpetrate injustice (especially when we are benefactors of those systems).

We are challenged, but it's hard for a slave (as we all are to those things we keep doing even though we know better) to feel they can triumph. Paul also points to hope.

Verse 25: Thanks be to God, though Jesus Christ our Lord! We are not left alone with our sin, but helped, forgiven, and saved. We can get up after failures, and keep trying, knowing that slavery to what is destructive is not inevitable. Take courage. By following Jesus' example, and God's law, there is freedom from sin-freedom from those things we do not want to do."

Question: If you had to answer the question; what is sin, how would you answer?

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

No such thing as "Naked Anabaptism!"

 Isaiah 2:2-4, Mark 1:14-15, Revelation 21:1-5

"There is no such thing as a naked anabaptist! " Gareth Brandt proclaimed at last week's retreat for Mennonite Church Alberta pastors. Our cultural settings and situations always influence our understandings and expressions of faith. In his new book, Spirituality With Clothes On: Examining What Makes us Who We Are, Brandt gets into the ways our culture and personalities help/hinder us in the understanding and expression of faith. (Brandt is professor of practical theology at Columbia Bible College in Abbottsford, BC)

I didn't get to blogging last week, because I was at the retreat, retreating! (And thinking about how culture influences faith expressions, church life, and lots more!)

I still had a sermon for the Nov.1 Sunday- and interestingly, the topic was to boil down my belief into a simple explanation of why I believe. If you were asked (sincerely, by someone with no Christian background) to explain your faith, how would you answer? For me, the "faith in a nutshell" or "elevator speech" has three components. God is the Creator-Love. Jesus is the Redeemer-Hope. Because I believe in a Creator/Redeemer, my life has purpose-Direction.

Of course life always throws complications at us, but this is my core, this is where all the thinking and planning and living starts. This is the most "naked" my faith gets. The acts of living, the application of belief is what puts the "clothes" on who I am and gives the world something to see and understand.

 On Nov. 8, Tim preaches the last sermon in the series that deals with the "shared convictions of anabaptist-related churches." Faith that Transforms the world is the topic.

That fits with my core belief that the Jesus way is what brings redemption to broken people and systems and situations. Jesus is peaceful, yet decisive and active. He emphasizes love and is especially concerned for the poor, marginalized, and misunderstood. He is a non-coercive servant leader. His way is hard, and does not always yield immediate results, but I'm convinced it is the best way.

I have trouble reading the Isaiah passage. It speaks of the Lord's house as being the highest of all, with the nations streaming to it for teaching and for judgement between them. The teaching and judgement results in the annihilation of war.

The trouble I have, is that it sounds like a new centralized governing body to solve problems. I don't see any real hope in human institutions. "Christendom" didn't work. (Granted, ways of governing are better than others, but all fall short of the Utopia of Isaiah!) How is this Isaiah vision different from every other structure we've seen in human history? What happens when there is judgement between nations and one of the nations doesn't agree? If I, as a parent, make a judgement in some dispute my children are having, I tend to divide up the things equitably, assign appropriate responsibilities, and have the "attitude" adjustment talk with them. Can you imagine God doing that to a "have" nation like ours? Can you imagine a nation listening without having to be coerced?

This judgement is exactly what has happened to Israel. (See Is.2:6-3:5). Israel has misbehaved-therefore-they are one of the nations also streaming to the 'mountain of the Lord", they aren't up there on the mountain. They need to come for teaching and judgement just like everyone else.

I guess my problem with this passage is that it seems to propose that if we have the "right government" in place, all is well. It's just too human an explanation, and I don't think we humans have it in us to get it right. Humans always use coercion, force, violence, and war.

It helps when I take the "people" off the high mountain, and leave that to God. I don't understand what this new system will look like, except that I expect to be standing at the bottom of the mountain to learn and hopefully to accept judgement.

In Revelation it says there will be a new heaven and new earth, the old has passed away. Maybe that helps too. My old ways of understanding systems is very human-this is something different. This is mystery, this is hope, this is trusting that God is in charge!

Questions for discussion:
1. How would you describe your faith in simple terms? What is "core" to your belief?
2. How do you imagine God as ruling? What happens to those who refuse to be taught?

Final thought. (A little tangent, just because it caught my eye.) An example of how culturally bound our expressions of faith are is found when you read through Isaiah 3. As the prophet describes how depraved and pathetic Jerusalem and Judah have become, verse 12 says; "...children are their oppressors, and women rule over them..."  Insulting words that are culturally bound! Women ruling is only an insult in a culture that believes this is unnatural or that women are incapable. It doesn't work in our time and place. (Brandt's assertion that faith and practice always has cultural clothes is pretty obvious here!) So I have to assume that the original hearers of this might have a  very different view of 'government' than we do. I have trouble seeing hope in Isaiah's vision, because it seems modeled on human structures which don't work. I do like Isaiah's portrayal of God's people as among those needing to be taught! Overall, for myself, I prefer the Revelation idea of something totally new-something I haven't yet been able to imagine.)