Saturday, 30 January 2016

Not this again.

For Jan. 31, 2016 Jeremiah 1:4-10, Ps 71:1-6, 1 Cor. 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

The love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, causes pastors preparing for a wedding service to sigh and think (if not say out loud) "not this again!"

It's not that it isn't a beautiful poem, it is. It's not that it isn't thought provoking, it is. It's not that it isn't continually challenging, it is. It's not that it is inappropriate for a wedding, it is.

The problem is that it is often misused. Not co-opted in any grand sense, just subtly massaged into something shallower than it was meant to be. It gets used for a purpose other that for what is was originally intended. Paul did not preach the love poem to star-crossed individuals whose love felt immutable, it was not the beginning of a journey together, it was not celebrating something that was already happening.

Paul preached this to a troubled community. Instead of newly weds, Paul is preaching to a bunch of people who are like married couples with the "seven year itch". They've been together long enough that the idealism has worn off and the warts are showing. Take a look at the preceding chapters.Here's an excerpt from chapter 11:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

The Corinthians were not treating each other well. They were fighting, hoarding, and playing power games. They were valuing some people and their talents above others (see ch. 12). All in all, there was a lot of "unlovely" going on in the church.

Paul preaches 1 Corinthians 13 as a challenge, a hopeful ideal to stand in place of the dysfunctional reality of the fractional church. Instead of chastising them, Paul encourages them to reach for something better. Instead of focusing on the negatives of their behaviour, he calls out what is positive. He calls out those behaviours that will strengthen the ties between people and bring out the strengths of individuals for the good of the whole.

I think this is a great passage to preach to couples and communities who are "itching" at the midpoint of their relationship journey. They have something good, but they've been together long enough that they haven't quite lived up to the idealism of vision statements and vows, their dreams haven't quite come true, and their differences are now in the forefront and irritations have pushed them into taking all the good things in their relationship for granted.

By focusing on what real love is, at the midpoint, Paul reminds the community that their greatest asset is real love, the kind of living with each other that continues to build for a long lasting common good, not just for ephemeral happy feelings and unrealistic (but addictive) dreams.

1 Corinthians 13 is an amazing message for those of us who are tired, or itching in the middle of frustrations. It is a real encouragement, a lifting up of each other, and a resetting of perspective that cannot help but strengthen whole communities.

It's not that I don't like preaching this at weddings, I do. And at those weddings, in the crowd, there are so many of us itching and needing this again and again.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Common Good

For Jan. 17, 2016. First Mennonite Church welcomes the Edmonton Christian Life Community Church (formerly the Chinese Mennonite Church) as we celebrate together at our annual joint worship service. Pastor Ken Tse will speak and Pastor Tim Wiebe-Neufeld is the worship leader.

Isaiah 62:1-5, Ps 36:5-10, 1 Cor. 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

I am struck by the words in 1 Cor. 12:5-7. ...there are varieties of each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

So often it is easy to forget that our skills and gifts are for others, for the whole gathered community to enjoy, to make us all stronger, to work together collaboratively. It is easy to look, with envy, at the talents another person possesses and feel shortchanged. A gifted singer, an eloquent speaker, a charismatic leader....why the jealousy? Why do we want to be the talented one? Is it for propping up our own feelings of self-worth? Can we truly celebrate the way someone else's gifts infuse and better our community?

The reminder in Corinthians is helpful. If the gift comes from God, it is for everyone, it is meant to build up the whole, not just the one.What we have and what we do should always be congruent with the common good. This is quite different than the way our society tends to celebrate the gifted individual! Society tends to put beauty/talent on a pedestal that casts a shadow over others. In God's eyes, our talents are all for the purpose of building each other up, not for rewarding individuals with fame and fortune.

This weekend, I will be speaking at a Jr. High Youth retreat. The topic is "as I am". It is about knowing that God loves and accepts us as we are, even when (and maybe most importantly when) we do not feel good about ourselves.

Jr. High is a time of growing identity, of figuring out where you fit in life and wondering if you have anything that others value. Pray that these searching and growing people might feel worthwhile, accepted, and encouraged. They should not feel they are sitting in shadows, but producing light that helps others to find themselves. Pray that they will embrace their emerging gifts and feel they have something to contribute to the common good.

Question: In what ways do your abilities, gifts, skills, etc...contribute to the common good?

A gift to share: This morning I read an amazing blog from a man who is dealing with terminal disease in a uniquely thoughtful and hopeful way.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Jesus' baptism as a "fork in the road"

For |January 10. Isaiah 43:1-7, Ps 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-22

At some time or another, we all get one of those Christmas gifts that enables our work life. It might be a new kitchen appliance, a power tool, a "how to" book of some sort that changes how we have done things in the past. A food processor mostly replaces the knife, the nailer mostly replaces the hammer, the craft book inspires ideas and projects. The new thing is meant to be used, to cook, to build, to create. It is the potential beginning of a new project done in new ways and now it goes to work.

This Luke story is exactly that kind of thing. Here we move from Christmas hope to real life, from idea to action. The gift has been given, and now Jesus stands at a fork in the road. Things are about to change.The official beginning of Jesus' ministry is launched.

There is a transition here from John's work to Jesus', a passing of the baton. John has been an incredibly popular prophet. People are flocking out to the desert to hear his message of revival, to repent and be baptized by him.

But what did that mean? What were they repenting from? What changed?

John wasn't preaching anything particularly new.  He was Jewish and was teaching accordingly. Baptism wasn't a completely new idea either. Some of the Jewish sects used it as a symbolic way to "initiate" new converts to the Jewish faith. Sometimes baptism was a symbolic ritual cleansing. So what is going on here? What is getting people excited?

John's baptism is connected with the idea of repentance. the idea that something has to change, that life has to do a "turn around". Starting at verse 10-the crowds ask John what this means, "what should we do?" His answer is that people who have things should share with those who do not, that tax collectors should be fair, and that soldiers (those with power) should be satisfied with their wages and not abuse their power. Not new ideas, but obviously in need of renewal!

It sounds so simple, but it was quite revolutionary. Institutionalized faith eventually gets stale, leaders can be more worried about protecting their positions than doing what is right, people get comfortable in their ritual practice and quit thinking and changing. Rich people protect their stuff and downplay the need to share, power is easily corrupted and it's misuse rationalized. John's revival is moving faith out of the temples and into the streets, out of the books and into the minds, hearts, and actions of the people. It is creatively reminding the people that their beliefs matter right now. Instead of waiting for some future righteous judgement of God to fix things, people are supposed to start living as if the kingdom of God were already present on earth, not something that will eventually happen in some perfect afterlife.

John was sparking personal renewal, encouraging people to act out their beliefs, exciting them about their faith, helping them see that faith is not only for priests, but for practical life. It's a "grassroots" movement to make society better.

It gets him in trouble with the comfortable institutions. The temple officials don't necessarily want to deal with change, and Herod (the government) isn't interested in having a population too fired up about justice and change either. John ends up in prison.

The transition to Jesus here is interesting. Jesus picks up exactly where John leaves off, and takes the message out of the desert and on the road to spread it well beyond John's reach. In Luke's gospel, John is in jail at the time of Jesus' baptism, so it's obvious that the movement around John's work isn't wholly dependent on the one charismatic leader! (Maybe this is the writer's way of downplaying John's importance, while still keeping the continuity between John's preparation for Jesus and the start of Jesus' ministry?)

The baptism itself is rather interesting. I read in a commentary (Fred Craddock, Interpretation Series) that the early church may have been somewhat embarrassed by the story of Jesus being baptized. After all, why would he need this?

That question resonates with me too, at least it used to. All through my childhood Sunday School years I wondered about this story. I understood baptism to be a renouncing of sin, a "washing", a public commitment, and official membership in a church. This understanding doesn't quite mesh with Jesus being baptized. We have no evidence he was a sinner, tradition and scripture describe him as blameless. He wasn't joining a church, he was already part of the temple.It's kind of strange to think of Jesus doing through a group dunking (likely a group thing) in the muddy Jordon along with crowds of regular Joes!

The baptism makes more sense if we think of the "repentance" as a turning point. This definitely indicates a turning point, this is where Jesus begins his public ministry. The baptism in the "John" tradition shows that Jesus is in line with this renewal of faith, a taking faith into the action of the everyday instead of leaving it in the temple. It lines Jesus up with the movement to share, be fair, and to use power responsibly. It also makes sense when I think of other stories of Jesus where he humbly shows his disciples what it means to be a leader. Why I think of the baptism as incongruous when I accept the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet? He is consistent in modelling such humble actions for those who wish to follow him.

The dove is a beautiful symbol of the Holy Spirit being visible in life. Once again, the idea of the Holy Spirit isn't new, there are references to it in the Old Testament. What is new, is that starting with Jesus, the HS is visible in the lives of those who follow God in word and action.

What does baptism symbolize for you? How does striving to be a disciple of Jesus make the Holy Spirit visible in your life?