Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Kingdom of God is Here

Genesis 28:10-16, Luke 13:20

Jesus asked, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” To what should I compare the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is like people of different faith traditions gathering without fear, on the same land, in the same sanctuary, on their separate holy days so that they may each worship the divine as they are called. The kingdom of God is like a room filled with people of all ages and abilities who are making one sandwich after another so all can be fed. The kingdom of God is like the time when you no longer can leave your residence but someone comes every month to offer God’s words of love and to play the most beautiful music for you. The kingdom of God is like laughing with the kitchen witches who are baking for Sunday’s fellowship and eating the most amazing chocolate chip cookie ever. The kingdom of God is like being wrapped in a quilt made by loving and caring hands and has been signed on the back with prayers of healing by so many who love you and even those who do not know you. The kingdom of God like receiving Christmas stockings and presents from a community of people simply because they want you to know that just because you are living with HIV that does not mean that you are not worthy of being recognized as a beloved child of God. The kingdom of God is being too sick to go to church but church comes to you in the form of a visit and a care package of jam, bread, soup and a Halloween candy or two. The kingdom of God is like being so broke that you can’t pay bankruptcy fees but a small, anonymous group of people pay the bill. To what should I compare the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is like the welcoming person who noticed the stranger in his hour of deepest need, who listened to his story, who wiped his tears and gave him a seat next to him in worship so that he would not feel alone.

God’s kingdom is not about individualism, not about personal gain, not about greed, power or fear. The kingdom of God is a time and a place in which people look out for each other, where the needs of the other are met, where each of us know our neighbour and know them to be as worthy of receiving compassion just as we, ourselves, are worthy. The kingdom of God is that time when know ourselves to be worthy of love just as our neighbour is worthy. It is that time when the hurt of each one of us is understood to be true and the healing from such hurt is essential for the healing of everyone else.

When Jesus speaks about what the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God is like, he speaks of situations that involve moments of growth. Moments of healing. Moments of transformation. What ends the story is not what it was at the beginning. The tree began as a mustard seed. The light and fluffy loaf of bread began because of a small bit of yeast. Here, our community began as individuals and grew into a family. These teachings of Jesus begin with something small and unlikely and becomes more. Becomes bigger. Bigger than ever seemed possible. This growth, this transformation, it is not done alone. The yeast needs the dough. The mustard tree becomes the home to the birds of the air. Those in pain need a listening ear, a hug of many prayers. Those who are hungry need food made by loving hands—a sandwich, a cookie. It is this connection between people, it is this gathering together that allows for healing, growth and transformation to happen. It is these things together that make up the purpose of Jesus’ church.

The business of the church is not to sell religion. Religion is a set of doctrines, structures, systems and rules—these things develop because we are human and humans crave order. But that is all just what religion is—defined order containing what is really important—our faith and our beliefs. When churches try to sell religion instead of living into their purpose of growth and transformation, they become like a corporation. And the business of a corporation is to satisfy people, to get them to spend more, to buy more. We all know, Jesus was not about making people feel satisfied. In fact, most of his ministry was about denying so many the satisfaction of acknowledging whatever earthly power they had for Jesus knew, no one on earth had more power than God. Jesus pushed and pulled his followers to seek new ways of being, to seek new paths to peace and a full life which meant they had to buck the system. His followers needed to stand up against the power of the Jewish and Roman leaders.

No, the church of Jesus was not in the business of satisfying the people. Nor should it be today. Following Jesus today may not have the same life or death consequences that it did two thousand years ago, but there are serious outcomes to being Christian in today’s world. Mercy, generosity, compassion, kindness, honesty, love, vulnerability, these are not easy things to live out in our world which promotes distrust, fear, hate and greed. Being fair and just at the expense of profit and gain is looked upon with uneasy glances in a world where the individual is held up over the community. In a world that has forgotten the gains we make today are because we stand on the shoulders of those people who came before us or because of the hand up from those who travel alongside us. The people of the early Church knew they needed each other for encouragement, support, for wisdom and to remind one another that the teaching of Jesus’ ministry was a truth that could not be denied. They knew that the strength of community was needed so the individual could grow. Could heal. Could be transformed and be the change the world so desperately needed. The church of Jesus Christ was then and is now in the business of making space to create relationships with one another. To create a relationship with God. And to create a relationship with ourselves.
Creating relationships that matter, relationships that encourage transformation, relationships that allow for healing is done best when we see God present in the actions of others. When we can glimpse the divine in the eyes of others. Our experience of meeting God in others gives us courage and frees us to recognize the God who is present in ourselves at the very core of our being. Recognizing God’s presence is essential. Jacob’s experience shows us this. Jacob was running. His past was marked. His future uncertain. In a dream, he sees God and God tells him, “I am with you. I will keep you. I will not leave you.” God was with Jacob. God had been there all along. When he was a fugitive. When he was dishonest. When he argued with his brother. When he begged his father for a blessing that was not his to have. When his mother urged him to take that which was his brother’s. God was there even when Jacob was born, the second twin, holding desperately to the heel of this brother, trying to keep Esau back so that he, Jacob, would be the first-born son. And God was there, in Jacob’s flight from his past to his future. After this dream, you might recall, Jacob goes on to a life filled with responsibility, love and family. His most beloved son, Joseph went onto the fame of starring in Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and he saved a nation of people from starvation.

The story of Jacob’s dream, with angels ascending and descending from heaven and God appearing beside Jacob is referred to as Jacob’s ladder. There is a theological term for such revelations of God. The visible manifestation of God is called a the/off/any. This appearance to Jacob is one of the rare times that God is revealed to humanity. While the Hebrew people felt that God was quite active in their world, they did not actually see God very often. Jesus realized that, in his time, the people of God had stopped directly connecting with God. The Torah Laws and the use of priests, sacrifices and ritual cleansing inhibited people from seeing how God was moving in their lives. And so Jesus reminded them in his stories. He showed them that in their everyday actions—they did not have to wait for a ritual or wait to be cleansed—in the everyday, God was being revealed. He gave to his followers a way to recognize their the/off/anies, their own visible manifestations of God. For Jesus knew, only in the revelation of God to all people could the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of peace, the kingdom of God become known across all of Creation. And so, we notice God in the mustard tree, in the loaf of bread, in the quilt, in a welcome, in a kitchen full of witches baking the best cookies ever.

To what should I compare the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is like when the treasurer of a volunteer run, self-funded, faithful congregation goes to bed at night and wakes rested and energized as she knows the congregation’s bills will be paid because the offertory baskets and the PAR donations—are flowing as if they were the lands filled with milk and honey. There are many reasons to give money away to different organizations. You can get tax receipts for deductions and that’s always a good thing in April. Giving money makes you feel good. You feel like you are helping to find a cure, support an important cause, you aid in feeding or housing someone who is down on their luck, because we all know, or at least suspect, there by the grace of God we go, and it could just as easily be us who’s luck runs out next year, next month, or even next week.

There was a time in our household that we had more time than money. My kids now find it hard to believe but I know many of you here would understand when I say I can remember, quite clearly, of having to take items off the belt at the grocery store checkout because my budget did not allow for things like ice cream that week. Or even that month. In that time of our life, we gave what we could with our time and energy. And when things began to get more comfortable with our budget, when ice cream and going to the movies began to appear in our regular living, we started a concentrated effort to be intentional about not only the time we gave but also the money. Our goal is 10% of gross income. We’ve gotten up to 8%. We give to several hard-working charitable causes—all of which we have a personal connection with—an international orphanage, support for those living with HIV in Africa and another for those here in Calgary, a Canadian micro-lender in South Africa. We also give so that our souls may be fed by art and theatre here in Calgary. But the place that gets more than half of our givings each month is Symons Valley.

There have been times over the years in which we have had a bit extra come in, money that was not anticipated in our household budget. And when those times have come, we have a little ritual in our house. Before anything else is done with the money, I calculate what will be given away and I ask Christopher, where would you like to give it? To Stephen Lewis, to Child Haven, to the theatre? And each time I ask him this, he pauses for a moment and then he says, give it to the church. Each time he says this. I finally asked him—why SVUC and not the others? We know they do good work, why just the church? And this is what he said, “I want to give to the church because I see what good things are happening there. I see what impact our givings make on what the church is doing and what the church wants to do.” For Christopher, this is the living out of our offertory invite: remember that we do not give TO the church but we give THROUGH the church.

I think I would add, the reason why I want to give what we give each month to be used by this church is because I feel that God is in this place. Jacob says when he wakes from his dream, surely God is in this place and I did not know it. Surely God is in this place. The difference I think, for us in this community, is that we know God is in this place. We feel it. We experience it. In this place that we call holy ground, God is revealed each and every day. This community of faith has grown and shifted, it has moved homes and has evolved, this community of faith has a long history of following Jesus, it has been daring and strong, it has been careful and cautious, but always, always, God has been in this place. In this place, we are fed and we are loved so that we may travel the narrow path of Jesus, knowing we have companions in front of us and behind us, encouraging us to be the best we can be, to love the best that we can love, urging us to stand up for what is right and good, and comforting us when we fall down. For we know, the kingdom of God cannot happen without a community surrounding us, holding us, lifting us up and pushing us forward into growth, into healing, into transformations. That is why I give. Why do you?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Fight at the Bar & John 3:16

John 3:16-17, Psalm 105:1, Isaiah 12:4

A couple of years ago Abigail and I were driving and a song from the Gospel of Keith Urban came on the radio. I don’t always listen to country music but I do when I’m in the car, I do. Maybe you’re familiar with the song—John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16. It is one of those many, many nostalgic American country songs that are being released lately. The kind that talks about how good things used to be—white picket fences, a mom who stayed home and baked apple pie, everyone going to church on Sundays kind of song—you know what I’m talking about. Anyway, the chorus goes like this: 

I'm a child of a backseat freedom, baptized by rock and roll
Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden, never grow up, never grow old
Just another rebel in the great wide open, on the boulevard of broken dreams
And I learned everything I needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16
So, there we were, driving along together, singing at the top our lungs and it occurred to me that I didn’t know the reference John 3:16. John Cougar—yes, if you’re my age, you grew up hearing from John Cougar Mellencamp. Jack and Diane, Small Town, Pink Houses… Now that I think about it—his songs too were quite wistful about an America that seemed to be long in the past.  So, John Cougar and then John Deere—even a city girl like me knows this titan of farm equipment. But John 3:16—the clergy person was stumped. So, I said out loud, ‘I wonder what that scripture reading is—I should look it up.” Abigail, at eleven years old, answers from the backseat, ‘You mean John 3:16? It’s the one that goes, God so loved the world that he gave his only son.’

And in that moment, I felt two things. A little embarrassed that she could pull that out of her back pocket at eleven, and I, a trained minister, could not. But I was also impressed that church has obviously rubbed off on this daughter of mine. However, I couldn’t remember that the Sunday School studying this scripture passage, so I asked, ‘You just know that? How do you just know that?’ And she replied, ‘I learned it when we were at the bar and watched the Mayweather fight.’ Which, I have to admit, was the answer I least expected . It turns out that a few months earlier, we were at a nomination party for our local MP—we are good friends with the family and we were anxiously waiting to hear if he had been nominated. I just want to be clear—we were not at a bar that night, we were at a restaurant. The TV near the party was showing the Mayweather fight. The kids were all watching it. That there is some good parenting but I’m thinking that’s just what happens with kid number four. Anyway, I guess Mayweather had the words John 3:16 on the waistband of his shorts…and Abby and the MP’s daughter looked it up.

Signs with the scripture passage of John 3:16 have long been held up at various sporting events. A wingnut named Rollen Stewart—and I know I sound a bit judgmental here but let me tell you this guy is currently serving three life sentences in California because in 1992 he kidnapped a hotel maid and demanded that he have a press conference to warn people about the imminent rapture that was going to happen in six days—anyway this guy began appearing at different sporting events in the Seventies wearing a big rainbow-coloured wig. He even showed up at Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding. Anyway, watching sports games on the television was growing in popularity in the Seventies and Stewart had figured out how to position himself so that he would be on camera when a goal or a touchdown happened. He would show up with a sign with just the words John 3:16 written on it and try to make sure he was caught on camera. So he did this all through the Seventies and Eighties and began a tradition of spectators holding up these kind of signs. The tradition began to wane in the Nineties but there has been a resurgence of people bringing signs to games since football player, quarterback Tim Tebow, wrote John 3:16 on his black eye-patches in college in 2008/9. College football has since created a policy stating that nothing can be written on those patches but signs still appear in the stands.

For many Christians, John’s words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” sums up the entirety of what they believe was Jesus’ ministry and God’s purpose in his life. God loves us, God gave up Jesus so that we might be saved and eternal life awaits all who believe in Jesus. Those who take literally the demand of Jesus to make disciples of all nations, will take this scripture with them when they go. When people come knocking on our doors asking if we know Jesus, it is John that they offer to you. When parents send their children to the mall to hand out tracts, it is John they are carrying with them. And, for them, this is the spreading of the Good News. They are evangelizing. They are sharing the Good News of what God did. Past tense. God gave his son. End of story. For many Christians, the Good News begins and ends only with themselves. THEY are saved. THEY will have eternal life. But, as per usual with the Bible, Jesus and with God, this scripture is bigger than just one person.

Let us take a moment or two to look these main sections. I’ll start with the giving up of Jesus. Many are taught that this piece of scripture means that Jesus has atoned for any and all sins of each of one us. As if by dying on the cross, our sins could be wiped away. If only we believed in him. And through him, believed in the one and only God. It would be easy to hear this passage of John’s and think that the giving of Jesus was if he was a gift from God. Handed over through the virgin birth and sacrificed upon the cross. As if a loving and compassionate God would do such a thing. 
But remember that Jesus was the Word made flesh. God gave Jesus to the world so that God could experience life within Creation. All of life. From birth to death. So that God could experience the joys and sorrows of being human. So that God could become part of the world, to be vulnerable to it and could partake of what the world and humanity had to offer. The giving of Jesus was not a transaction between God and humanity. It wasn’t a tit for tat. The story did not end with the giving but rather it continues unceasingly. The giving of Jesus is like the writing of a love poem that carries on still, to this day. Just as the love we have for our own beloveds, for our dearest friends, for our children, for our grandchildren, the love God made manifest through Jesus continues onward, forever into our now and into the future.  For it is through the stories, miracles and actions of this man Jesus that humanity has witnessed the very grace, mercy, compassion and love of God still offers to the world. And it is through the life of this man Jesus that we know God understands the trials and the celebrations of what it means to be human. 

Now onto God loving us and our belief in Jesus. What can be easily overlooked is that John says that God so loved the world that his gave his son. God came for all of Creation, not for one person over another, not for one community of people over another. God did not come for a few, God came for all. All that has been asked in return is to be believe. Not that long ago to believe was to belove. In our near history, our rational, scientific influences want belief to be connected to a truth that can be proven. Unless you’re Donald Trump of course, but I’m taking a self-imposed hiatus from talking about him. Before conservative literalism grew in the mid-19th Century, to believe in something meant to belove something—to yearn for that something, to pay attention specially to that something, to commit to that something, to be loyal to that something, to value that something above all else. God wants us to believe, to belove. What should we belove? If I say we are to believe in God, to belove God, what would that mean? Jesus taught us. To belove God is to yearn for peace, to pay attention to injustice, to commit to loving others as ourselves, to be loyal to God’s Creation, to value above all else compassion.

Once we belove, once we believe, we find ourselves being transformed by these things. We find trust where before there was skepticism, find connection with those who might only be passing through our day, we find the Divine in those it would be east to dismiss as less-than, not worthy , we seek justice for all people, not just those closest to us. People matter. Creation matters. When we believe, when we belove, our problems don’t disappear, the issues each of us struggle with, the hurt and pain of life, of living and of death, do not simply vanish. Being of faith doesn’t mean you are protected from brokenness. But when you open your heart, when you welcome in others, when you are willing to be vulnerable just as God was through Jesus, when you fully partake in the life that has been given you, you will see how God’s goodness moves in and through us. Amongst us the Holy Spirit moves, reminding us that love always overcomes hate, that choosing to be kind trumps choosing ridicule and scorn, that compassion always, always has a place in relationships, be they long and deep connections or fleeting.

When we feel these moments of the Holy Spirit moving, when God enters in and touches our heart, when the meaning of the words Jesus speaks suddenly rises before us, guiding us, urging us to move, to use our power for good, how can we help but want to share the good news? How can we help but want to run down the road to our friends to tell like Mary did when she discovered the truth of the tomb—not only was it empty but Jesus was right there, he had never left. How can we not tell others like we would tell them about other awesome things in our lives? Like you would when your kid receives an acceptance letter from a university? Like when you find a restaurant that has the best French Onion soup ever?  Or how about when you discover a TV show on Netflix that deserves every award ever made. We have no problem exclaiming these things, do we? I don’t. I’ve been telling everyone lately—and here I am doing it again—if you haven’t seen This is Us on TV yet, you need to get yourself sorted and watch the first season. Don’t watch it alone—or at least set yourself up a discussion group because this show has so much going on, lots of feelings, lots of crying, lots of amazing acting, lots of love between a complicated family that experiences hurt and pain in very real ways, you will need to talk about it. It really is an awesome show. I can talk about this show with anyone, a friend, a person I don’t know in line at Tim’s, my doctor, but I’m pretty sure I would never follow up my synopsis with the show with a story of how God has recently pushed me, pulled me, cajoled me to be better. To do better. To be the hands and feet of Christ. I wouldn’t do that. I might be afraid that the message would be heard as me trying to convert them. Trying to convince them that their way of life is wrong, while I am on the true path. That I am saved and they are not. We bear the weight of those who have gone door to door, who hand you tracts at the shopping mall.

So, what does evangelism mean to us, in this United Church of ours? We are not a converting church. We do not require doctrine or dogma to be declared as truth before we help. In Zambia I was asked if the United Church of Zambia was not prepared to agree that LGBTQ people have rights and freedoms in their country, would we hold back funding and assistance? No, absolutely not, I replied. Because we are not a converting church. However, we didn’t back down from sharing our understanding that God’s love is for all people. That God has made all people in God’s image—white, black, brown, male, female, trans, gay, straight, bi, short, tall, narrow or wide. God’s grace and compassion is never-ending for all who walk the face of this earth. We spoke our truth for the whole of our trip and once in awhile found ourselves in a bit of debate over what God’s thoughts really were. It was never a comfortable discussion and we never told the other they were on the wrong side of loving one’s neighbour as ourselves, but we also didn’t shy away when asked about our beliefs. This is how we evangelize. We talk about what love and connection we experience here together, in this community of faith of ours. We share what good this congregation is doing for the wider community. We talk about how we care about the homeless. The forgotten. The hungry. And we go serve those who live at the margins.  We show how God has moved in our lives through our loving and caring actions. We talk about the need to remain open, we act justly even when the law doesn’t require us to, we speak against racist, bigoted, misogynistic comments and behaviour. We speak of God’s grace as we speak our truth, we show God’s compassion in how we treat others—those we hardly know, our friends and even our enemies and we declare God’s love when through our own willingness to be vulnerable and open, we allow others to be open and vulnerable with us. We do not convert. We do, we show and we speak. And then we let go. We let go and let God. For God is good. All the time.