Thursday, 31 March 2016

Always a surprise.

Lectionary passages for April 3, 2016. Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29, Rev. 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

My first step outside this morning was greeted with loud robin and finch songs. What a glorious spring morning. Hearing the robins, especially, makes me feel alive. I know that the dead of winter is gone and that new life is here!

The post Easter scriptures are all about change, about life where there was death, about new possibilities.

In Acts 5:27-32, the apostles had just been miraculously released from prison by an angel, and were right back at the "crime" that had put them there.They were again teaching at the temple. Questioned; Peter replied that he had to obey God rather than human authority. He also summarized the story of Jesus raised from the dead to offer forgiveness. The authorities were enraged and wanting to kill Peter and the not stop the reading here!

If the reading is stopped, it appears that all the authorities were in the wrong, but there is an amazing story of courage and reasonableness from one of them. Gamaliel, a Pharisee, convinced the angry powers to leave Peter alone. "If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them-in that case you may even be found fighting against God!"

What incredible stories of courage, both from the apostles who continued their witness even though opposition, imprisonment, and flogging, and from this brave Pharisee who was willing to speak out in opposition to his own people. A situation that would have ended in death for the apostles was averted because one man was willing to think in fresh ways and courageous enough to speak it. (And the other Pharisees, angry though they were, were able to hear! That speaks well for them too!)

Easter is a time of new beginnings, a time when life comes with a newness that is always surprising and invigorating. Even though I know that new grass will grow out of ground that was frozen (only last week!) it still surprises me every year to see it.

John 10:22 is a story of knowing, or at least having the information, and not believing. It's as if the grass is growing and being denied. The "Jews" demand that Jesus tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. Jesus responds that he has already told them and they do not believe. Interesting, isn't it, how people set themselves to firmly believe what they have always believed and so are unable to consider anything but their own opinion? In this case, the grass is growing right under their feet, they have the information, and they refuse to acknowledge it. Unfortunately, most of us aren't any different than that. What does it take to open our ears, to wait and watch (like Gamaliel), to truly live into a new "Spring" instead of clinging so hard to the old?

The apostles were able to make the change. Before and immediately after Easter, they were a cowardly and ineffectual bunch. After encountering a risen Christ, they become courageous. Many people are able to hear and the church springs into life!

Life out of the frozen ground of death is difficult, but it happens. It really does. We have the information. Life from God is a sure thing, and even if we don't understand it, it is happening all around us. Eventually; "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." Rev. 7:17b

Stories about change: I wrote a series of Children's stories that follow along with the lectionary passages from Acts for this year. If you'd like to read them, go to and google my name; Donita Wiebe-Neufeld. You'll have to scroll down a bit, but the stories are all there for free!

Tuesday, 22 March 2016


Easter Sunday. March 27, 2016 John 20:1-18

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! This call and response is the traditional Easter morning greeting I grew up hearing in the Mennonite church. It is a joyful declaration, a proclamation, not just of the center hope of our faith, but of our identity as a people of the resurrection. We have a faith identity that joyfully lives into each day knowing that God is life anew and everlasting. Hope instead of fear. Light instead of darkness. Love instead of hate. It is such a needed message.

I wish we believed it.

Maybe that doesn't sound quite right, but when I really think about the empty tomb, I have questions. Do we live as if there is always hope? Do we live knowing and acting as though each person (yourself and enemies included) is deeply loved and valued by God? Do we see the bright side and live into it, or does the darkness of personal issues and world problems overwhelm? If we really, deeply believed, what would this news of an empty tomb unleash for us?

John 20 has three characters going to the tomb and exhibiting differing levels of belief.

Mary shows up alone, in the dark, emotionally distraught, and she finds an open tomb. (Doesn't this sound like the set up to a horror movie? Or maybe a scene from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer?") Mary doesn't immediately believe in resurrection-she is so much more practical. She assumes there has been a robbery or a body snatching by the Romans. She doesn't go into the tomb (smart woman-in Buffy, the characters always split up, then go alone into dark, scary places...) after all, the robbers might still be there. Mary runs to tell the upsetting news to the disciples. After Peter and the Beloved disciple see and leave, Mary is again left alone. Now she is able to look in the tomb. She sees angels in white. (I have to admire the amazing composure Mary has. She is not afraid-she's able to speak with angels.) She isn't even startled when the "gardener" appears. Again, she engages, still convinced by the practical explanation that the body was taken. It is not until Jesus calls Mary directly by name that she recognizes him and believes. Joy is unleashed and she shares it.

Peter, foremost of the disciples, sees the empty tomb and the empty grave clothes, but there is no statement of belief-just the general comment in verse 9 that; "as yet they did not understand the scripture." Peter's is kind of an agnostic response. He is uncommitted, checking out the facts, and awaiting proof. Eventually, once he has that proof, courage and proclamation are unleashed. Through Peter, much of the early church is born.

The 'beloved' disciple saw and believed. Hope and witness are unleashed.

There must have been others too. Crowds of people had followed Jesus. How many had their faith crushed and their hopes die along with him, never to be brought to life again? Their stories are not recorded in scripture, There wasn't even enough hope left in them to draw them to the tomb. For them, the stone may as well have stayed in place. (However, they may have heard the witness of the believers, or experienced Christ themselves at some point. There is always hope, we just don't always see it right away.)

All levels of belief (or lack of) will be present in the church on Easter morning to hear the proclamation; He is risen indeed! And that is good. We don't all have to be at the same place in faith. Some of us are like Mary, waiting and needing to hear our names called rather specifically. Some, like Peter, are a little skeptical, but want to see proof, we want this hope to be true. Some are lucky, and belief comes easily and joyfully. Some are, sadly, unable to believe that life is possible out of death. For them, the stone has not yet been rolled away.

For the ones who come to the tomb and see it empty, no matter where they are at in faith, they witness to what they have seen. They tell others about the stone, about the clothes, about the missing body. And they listen to each other. Mary tells of her encounter with the gardener who knew her name, the beloved disciple shares his joy, Peter tells what he knows and waits for more. Eventually, they all believe and their lives change. Instead of hiding and crying, they proclaim joyful good news of life.

If we believe, deeply and truly that the stone is rolled away and Jesus is alive, what is unleashed in us?

He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Whiplash and Grace

Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016

Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 31:9-16, Phil 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23:56

The Luke passage is a long roller coaster ride. Like a roller coaster, it starts at a high point (actually in chapter 19, the triumphal entry) and then hurtles, unstoppable and twisting, toward an inevitable end.

Like many roller coasters, this read jerks us around a bit and there is a feeling of whiplash as it progresses, then it comes to a resolution that leaves us wondering what just happened.

The characters are incredibly complex. Chapter 22 begins with a betrayal plot. Judas, one of Jesus' beloved inner circle, agrees to betray him. Whiplash. There is a difficult discussion around the supper table where the disciples discuss who the betrayer might be, and Jesus gives Peter the hard news that he will be a denier. Peter, the one who declares Jesus as the Messiah (ch. 9), denies him. Whiplash. Then Jesus enters into agonizing time of prayer, but the disciples fall asleep. Whiplash.

The whiplash turns physical in verse 63 as Jesus is mocked by the soldiers who bring him to the chief priests. The scene is repeated in front of Pilate. Pilate, however, makes an announcement that he finds no basis for accusation against Jesus and sends him on to Herod who sends him back. But even though Jesus is not guilty in the eyes of the Roman authority, Pilate gives in to the demands of the crowd, releases a known criminal, and hands Jesus over for execution. Whiplash.

The passion story is a series of things gone horribly wrong. Betrayals broadside Jesus everywhere, coming from his closest friends and faith partners, from the crowds that had just welcomed him with palms, from the temple, from the government.

Then, however, there are some "whiplash" moments that are different, places in the story where we are broadsided with grace. I need different words than whiplash for these moments. Jesus, unfathomably, asks God to forgive his killers. Compassion. A criminal, hanging on a cross beside Jesus comes to faith. Jesus offers him paradise. Forgiveness. The soldiers, crowd, and the women came to know that Jesus was innocent. Truth. A righteous man named Joseph and the women who followed Jesus courageously cared for his body. Generosity and love.

What a complex story. I feel tired after reading it, the horror and injustice is awful. I feel some whiplash. I try to be a disciple too and don't want to identify with Judas, but realize that Peter is a betrayer too. I feel a bit of the sting here when I realize we are all somewhere on this continuum of turning away. (Even the crowds and soldiers feel convicted!) I also, however, feel a bit of a thrill at the end of this read. I am a little amazed. Even before we get to the resurrection, there are glimpses of glory, bits of unbelievable hope, gifts that deniers and betrayers and criminals don't deserve.

This is a hard week in the church year. A time when we ride the roller coaster and try to deal with the apprehension, the hard turns, and still try to see the grace that is there. If we let the complexity and difficulty of this story soak into our souls, we come out the other side of it having faced the fact that we are part of the accusing crowd, the failed friend, the corrupt systems. We also come through knowing that God's hand is reaching out, that grace is offered, that we are loved.

I love getting through the passion story and moving on to what happens next. But for this week, we are on the rollercoaster.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Crazy extravagance, gracious reception

For March 13, Lent 5.  Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 4-14, John 12:1-8

A long time ago, back in BC (before children), I went on a learning tour to Colombia with a group of other youth ministers from Canada and the USA. While there, we walked the streets of Bogota and had a chance to go into a small store owned by a couple from the Mennonite Church. The store was the size of a large closet. They sold soap, small hardware items, and odds and ends. The owners were excited to have foreign visitors and we were given some coffee and nice hot-cross buns. Later on, we were told the store barely earned enough for the family. The buns were a very special thing, purchased fresh from a nearby bakery to welcome us. It was one of the most humbling things I have ever experienced. These poor people were so willing to give of themselves to bless us. Us wealthy folks were the recipients of an abundant and joyful generosity that we could do nothing about but accept it.

I have often thought of those people and how they gave so generously even out of their poverty.

The texts for this week are of crazy abundance, God's willingness to share, and our own struggle with what it means to be on the receiving end.

Isaiah has God making ways in the wilderness, stopping armies, and giving rivers in deserts until even the wild animals honour their creator-BUT-read a little further. Verse 22. "Yet you did not call on me." God has so much to give, and yet the people do not receive. We aren't very good at receiving.

Jesus teaches a lesson about gracious reception. In John we read the story of Mary (Martha and Lazarus' sister) pouring expensive perfume on Jesus' feet and wiping them with her hair. The perfume was worth a year's wages for a labourer, a crazy extravagance to use to clean someones feet! In the face of the outpouring, Jesus lovingly accepts Mary's gift. Judas, however, is the voice of reason and practicality. He exclaims at the waste and questions why the money wasn't put to better use. After all, it could have helped the poor! Most of us have to admit that our voice is probably the same as Judas'!

There is a little aside following Judas' outburst, an aside that disparages his character. I am a bit inclined to disregard this bit. It's obviously added after the betrayal when no one liked Judas anymore. It feels like dismissal of his argument, a way to justify ourselves when we use this same argument. And we do use this argument. Is it okay to use it if we are good people and only not okay to use it if we are like Judas?

It occurs to me that this extravagant generosity and these texts of abundance (and stingy reception) are particularly appropriate for our Alberta boom and bust mentality. When do we give? When the economy is booming, governments argue that they can't spend because prices are too high, workers too scarce...etc...When the economy is bust, the argument switches to "now isn't the time to spend."

How are our lives, both spiritually and physically, a boom and bust mentality? How many times do we use very practical arguments to prevent generosity or to obscure what is really going on, or to limit resources that are meant to be used to bless others?

It was common practice  in NT times for perfume to be used to mask the odours of death. Mary must have been listening to Jesus and was already mourning his upcoming death. She had purchased the perfume for his burial, then rather spontaneously, decided not to wait. She anoints Jesus before death when he can respond to what she does. This wasn't only an extravagant gift, but an expression of extravagant love and acceptance of what Jesus was about to do with his life. And Jesus extravagantly receives. (Note how he defends Mary, but also is kind to Judas. In saying that the poor are always there, Jesus is not dismissing the practical concern Judas raises. The poor are to be cared for too, but  at this moment Mary has chosen well.)

Questions: How have you been extravagantly blessed by another? How have you blessed someone? Are you able to receive an extravagant gift of love in a way that honours the giver?