Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Woman! Be Slow to Anger!!

James 1:19-25

Alright, I’m about to say something controversial here. Gird your loins. Are you ready? Ok, here it is. The Bible was written, every single word of it was written by human beings. It was not written word for literal word by God in Hebrew and Greek and then translated into a bazillion different languages. Men wrote the Bible. (And I’m not being gender neutral here cause the fact of the matter is that it was very likely all men who put the actual words to paper.) In this context, here at Symons Valley United Church, that information—not that men wrote the Books of the Bible—but the fact that God’s self did not write the Bible probably does not really shock you. And, if it does, I’m sorry. Come see me after worship and we can chat. Anyway, I wanted to put out in front of us that people, real life people who were birthed into the world, who were loved and cared for by family friends, who experienced loss and pain in the course of their living, people who knew the joy and celebration and the hurt and dismay of living in a world controlled by men who were not their people, by men whose greed and fear motivated ongoing violence and oppression of their fellow men and women, these real life people wrote the entirety of the Bible. The Bible was written by people who were very much like you and me. By people who were living the best they could with the brokenness of that surrounded them—the brokenness of their neighbours and the brokenness of themselves. The Bible is the very real outpouring of folks who were seeking a better way of living and a better way of being.

And because the Bible was composed by everyday sort of people, that means the construction of the Bible was not a flawless process. The remembering and the collating of stories to be included in the canon was dependent upon the sensibilities of many different people, over a long-time frame. And so, there repetitions here and there, there are continuity issues—you know when you are watching a tv show and a character is wearing something in a scene but when the camera angle changes and we see them from a different perspective, they are not wearing it? The Bible has moments like that. We notice it when we align the common stories from each Gospel side-by-side. Who exactly discovered the tomb empty? Was it Mary alone or was it a group of women? Was the woman who poured oil over the feet of Jesus Mary from Bethany or was it an unnamed woman? These discrepancies exist and, because of that, biblical scholars through the ages have bickered over which version is correct and tried to determine if the differences matter. Some of the bigger discrepancies in the Bible concern seemingly contradictory lessons or pieces of wisdom. Today’s reading is central to a big argument that took place in the time of Martin Luther and carries on with us today. You see, when Paul wrote his letters to the emerging Christian communities of faith, he often argued against legalism. Doing precisely this or doing precisely that did not make up the instruction manual for getting good with God. To be a faithful Jew means following a lot of rules concerning one’s behaviour—rituals, eating only permitted food and not eating other foods like seafood, refraining from certain actions. To honour God, one had back in ancient times and still do this day, a daily list of what and what not to do. Paul essentially threw the rule book away and said, the laws don’t matter, only your faith matters. Just believe and have faith and you’re good with God.

But then, along came James. James the Just. James, the brother of Jesus. James who likely witnessed the Risen Christ. Paul argued again legalism, James argued against antinomianism - which is a twenty-five-dollar word meaning to be freed by grace from the necessity of obeying the Mosaic Law. More or less, God loves me so I don’t have to worry about avoiding the steak and lobster special when I go out for supper. James recognized that by giving up the rituals and the laws of Moses—the ones Paul said people did not have to worry about—James noticed folks around him were not really concerned with the world around them. They believed. They were good. God had their back. There was no needed to fret about the state of the world. James said, no, no, no. You can believe all you want but your faith only adds up to a hill of beans if there is no action. This is what we heard today. Have faith and then work towards righteousness. It’s not the make-work rules and legalism that you have to work at, but you need to work at being decent to those around you. It would seem, at this point, the Bible is not clear—is it by faith alone or through works that one finds themselves on the right-hand side of God? Biblical scholars say that while each position seems counter to the other, they, in fact, are undergirded by the same God. As such, to believe in and to have faith in a merciful and compassionate God that loves without end is to be someone who works for the wholeness of the world, not just the wholeness of ones-self. So, two weeks ago you heard loudly and clearly from Stephen that God loves you and will never forsake you and today you will hear, God loves you without end and what now are you going to do about it?

A few verses after what Debra read, James states, loving your neighbour fulfills the law. Two millennia later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German minister and theologian who was imprisoned and executed because of his association with an assassination plot of Hitler, wrote “What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbour”. Just as Jesus did not name names when asked who exactly is one’s neighbour but rather described what being a neighbour looked like, James explains what types of actions makes one a good neighbour. He says we are to be quick to listen and slow to speak and be slow to anger. Now I have to admit that when I read the reading this week, I chuckled and then phoned the love of my life, the one who knows me like no other and read it to him. He laughed out loud and said he needed to make into a sign—I think he means to have it somewhere near him at all times so that when my personality dips its toe into the lake of volatility that I seem to live right next to at all times and I start ranting about this or that, particularly when he’s been awake for only a few minutes and I’ve been up for a whole hour already listening to the news or reading about the latest insanity that is politics these days, he can just put up the sign and go about his business of getting a cup of coffee. But I digress.

Be quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger. Be doers of the word. Don’t only hear but do. Don’t be like someone who looks into the mirror and immediately forgets their collar is askew or their hair is all mussed up. Look into the mirror and see what needs doing and work to get it done. The United Methodist theologian and author Donald Messer who is known for his work to combat world hunger and HIV/AIDS, has written, ‘Faith without works is dead. Hoping without helping is sinful.” I have this quote and Bonhoeffer’s pinned up right up beside my computer monitor in my office. I have learned, not perfectly, but I have learned that listening is as important, if not more so, than speaking. I am still learning what it means to be slow to speak. And I think being slow to anger will always be somewhat of an elusive virtue for me. However hard it is to imagine implementing what James says being a good neighbour is all about, it is important and necessary to keep those encouragements before us as we move through life. Because loving your neighbour is not about assuming you know what their struggles are or what needs they have. You learn their struggles and know their needs by first listening—active listening in which you hear what is said then respond thoughtfully instead of sitting there with something lined up to say, just waiting for the other to be done speaking. Have a comment ready to go, regardless of what their concerns are. Listen and then do. Do with purpose, do with respect, do with intention.

Being quick to listen and slow to speak are actions but they also give us a sense of timing. Listening takes time. Being slow to speak take more time still. And slowing down the burn of anger takes even more time. Last week Simon and I witnessed a terrible car crash and it easy to know how to be a good neighbour in the instant of that moment but often figuring out what it means to be faithful, compassionate, loving doers of the word, figuring out what would Jesus do, what would God have us do in a difficult scenario, takes time. Helping without hurting, being an ally and not taking over, takes time and leads to having to get organized. Finding a plan that might work. Putting said plan in motion. I have used this example before, but it holds up. Four years ago, just before Christmas, I received a call from someone desperate for help. Her family had experienced a perfect storm of unfortunate incidences and they could not pay their mortgage. Food was hard to come by. Could the church help. Long story short, with one email to the congregation, I had $2500 in 24 hours. And I realized I had put the church in a tough spot. Only then did I slow down. It was way more money than the situation called for. There were legitimate questions around appropriate levels of fundraising outside of our policies. So, we had some conversations. Some praying happened. I reached out for advice. And a plan developed that allowed for the family to receive the money over time that was in line with how we wanted to offer justice and love to all who walk through our doors. It was good. And now we have a plan going forward. My point here is that planning is good. Sure, we can get so caught up in the planning that we can’t see the forest for the trees however a plan means we have structure to work within. And we’ll be aware when we are moving outside that structure which then might cause us to take pause and take the time to make an informed decision as to whether we want to make an exception to the rule. Flying by the seat of your pants can be fun but it doesn’t allow for sustainability. Winging it works now and then but it gets tiring not knowing what’s coming next.

Planning for what’s coming next is what stewardship is all about. You can’t harvest a field without seeding it and tending the crop in the months leading to getting the combine out, you can’t feed the homeless without assembling and preparing the food. You can’t give a quilt to someone recently diagnosed with ALS without cutting the fabric and quilting it once you’ve sewn all the pieces together. You can’t offer space to community programs, to AA, to Girl Guides, to a Muslim prayer group without clearing the snow from the parking lot, without paying the heating bill, without making sure that no one else will be in the space they need. You can’t have a visit over coffee and baking without first making it and putting it out for when the service is over, you can’t serve breakfast at the Drop-In Centre without asking for volunteers, you can’t have Livestream without technology and you can’t make change the lightbulbs in the parking lot or the foyer without hiring a lift to get you up there. Just as you can’t do all these things without planning, we cannot be a blessing to the world, to our community, to ourselves without doing first some planning. Planning takes time. Planning takes into account vision. Planning takes into account hopes and dreams. Planning takes into account what God would have us do. Planning takes into account the Good News that was given to us by Jesus, the man who walked the earth and the Risen Christ who emerged from the tomb. And planning takes into account available resources—the gifts, skills and time of human power and the resource of financial power.

How the Treasurer sleeps
when the mortgage is paid.
A few weeks ago the Outreach Committee showcased the many different opportunities they provide for folks to get involved in issues around hunger, homelessness and caring for those with HIV. Our building hosts community programs and offers a safe and warm alternate for outdoor programs on rainy days through the summer. Our parking lot is used for bottle drives and, if you can believe it, a base for local police operations. We welcome people of the Islamic faith to worship here, in this very space, praying to the same God of our hearts. We offer a loving, affirming and compassionate welcome to all who walk through our doors. We do that. Not just Stephen and, but all of us. We can do this because we have worked together and planned with intention and with love how to do that and how to be that. And part of that planning is knowing the budget we have to work with. We generally work within our budget but between this, that and the other, we found ourselves a bit cash poor before the summer. Michelle, our long-suffering treasurer, put out a call for funds to cover the cash shortage. $35,000 was raised for the faith component. Which is awesome. But can you imagine if the income needed, the general giving’s AND the faith component was given in full through planned monthly donations? No shortage would happen. Mortgage would be paid. Treasurer would sleep nice, peaceful, sleeps. The math is this. Certainly not all of us can give that amount. But lots of us can. And a few of us can give more. I say this only to encourage you to faithfully consider this month how you can help this congregation plan. How you can help this congregation do its best to be a blessing for the world, for our community, for each and every one of us. To be doers of the word. This day and forever more. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Scooby Doo and the Avatar Were the Worst!

Luke 10:25-37

This Sunday was Thanksgiving Sunday AND World Communion. The church calendar is intersecting in a fabulous way with the secular calendar this year. If you're church geeky such as me, it might interest you that the following dates/days have been or will be connected:
  • Christmas Eve 2017 - was a Sunday (we had our usual Sunday morning service and then two evening Christmas Eve services)
  • Ash Wednesday - was Valentines Day in 2018
  • Easter Sunday - was April 1st. I was tempted to set up a tomb-like structure and have a Jesus character jump out and yell 'April Fools!!' at the start of the service. But I didn't. Cause I'm a grown up.
  • Pentecost Sunday - was Victoria Day long weekend. So many people leave town that weekend to get their first weekend of camping in. Various combinations of the staff also try to take that weekend off. Not in 2018. We. Were. All. Here.
  • Canada Day was a Sunday.
  • Thanksgiving Sunday was the same Sunday as World Communion. Giving thanks as we have communion with Christians around the world. Cool.
  • Remembrance Day is a Sunday.
  • Epiphany 2019 falls on a Sunday. Super cool. We'll have to food involved with that service. Have an actual Feast of Epiphany
Anyway - none of this is what the message was about Sunday. I got myself a little distracted. Here's the somewhat organized chaos of what happened...

With some help, I told this story:
A man was going down from Calgary to Okotoks, when he fell into the hands of two pediatric cardiovascular surgeons. They stripped him of all of his vast amount of money, stoned him, and scurried away, leaving him half comatose.  An Avatar happened to be going down the same road, and when she saw the man, she shuffled by on the other side.  So too, a Scooby Doo, when he came to the place and saw him, he skedaddled by on the other side.  But a Muslim, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he felt sorry for him.  He went to him and bandaged his elbow, pouring on water and milk.  Then he put the man on his own cow, took him to an pyramid scheme business and took care of him.  The next day he took out two purple pieces of monopoly money and gave them to the babysitter. “Look after him.” He said, “and when I return, I will pay you for
any extra damages you may have.”
Does this story sound familiar to you? If you're churched at all, it should ring a few bells for you. It's the Mad Libs version of The Good Samaritan. I asked the youth and children to select verbs, nouns, occupations and such at the start of the service and then I told the story.

Dave read the scripture reading in French and some folks acted out the story. You remember it right? Some religious people ask Jesus what are the basic laws to follow in God's world. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul. And love your neighbour as you would yourself. At which point, the religious know-it-all tried to trick Jesus and asked, 'But, who is my neighbour?' And Jesus, being way clever, answered with parable rather than a straight-forward, easy to work around answer and told the story of the despised Samaritan being the hero of the injured man. The priest and the Levite were not the heroes. THAT Samaritan was very much the hero.

And then I asked some questions...

·       What do you suppose the injured man thought when he saw the priest coming his way? (If you can’t rely on a religious leader to help you, who can you count on?)

·       What about the Levite (lay leader respected in religious circles)? (Disappointed, an outcast, not worthy of being helped…)

·       Why do you suppose neither of them stopped to help? (Ritual cleanliness, being late, maybe they were being tricked…)

·       The injured man was a Jew and Jews HATED Samaritans – they treated them like second class citizens. How do you suppose the injured man felt when the Samaritan walking towards him? (Helpless, vulnerable, expecting to be taunted or harmed further?)

·       What did you notice the Samaritan did in this story? He took IMMEDIATE action. He saw someone in need and got involved. He ignored prejudices. He saw a person in serious need and acted. His concern for the injured man was genuine and long-lasting. He made arrangements with the innkeeper to return later to check on the man’s condition and settle his bill.

·       How do you think the injured man felt when he realized the full extent of how the Samaritan helped him? (THANKFUL) When you live with gratitude, you look at the world with a different outlook – you are more compassionate, forgiving, helpful, kind.

·       What was Jesus trying to say when he made the Samaritan, a hated foreigner, the hero of the story? (Our neighbour can be ANYONE.)

Not very often do we come across such dramatic opportunities to help someone else. My son Simon and I saw a very bad accident last week. We got to be good Samaritans because help was very much needed but there are very few moments in life in which we witness such a dramatic event. I can think of two different ways of loving the world as you would love yourself even when there are no accidents or violent acts to respond to:


Gratitude - Thumbprint Prayer -- Each day look for at least one person, place, or moment that you’re thankful for or that fills you with feelings of thankfulness. When you are with that person, or are in that place, or have had that moment, leave your thumbprint somewhere close by. As you do, say—even under your breath—“Thank you, God!” See how many thumbprint thank yous you can leave in the world.

Helping - Acts of Kindness – write some action you could perform this week on a piece of paper and put it into the offering plate

The youth and the children then collected all the sticky notes with acts of kindness written on them and taped them to the cross. It was awesome.

And that is how our message time went on this Thanksgiving Sunday. You can watch the whole service here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

This That and the Other

Alright. I'm going to confess right here and now - no burying the lead... I have not done what I wanted/said I would do. I had it in my head that I would read a book in a couple of weeks and then I would write up a little blog post about the book. You know - just write up a little something in between the sermons and other such things that I write in my day-to-day to life.

It's a funny thing, but there are folks who still don't know that a minister actually does work four (and sometimes five) days of the week beyond Sunday. We compose - on paper or in our heads - sermons. We write grant applications. We write bible study programs. We write newsletters. We write prayers, worship services and blessings for babies. We help with Committee work. We host programs. We make phone calls and visit those who need a pastoral presence in their lives.

You get it. I know you do. But sometimes I forget. And I think I can write just one more thing before the At-a-Glance gets sent out on Thursday afternoons. Which is a long-winded (I am a preacher after all) way of saying, there's no way I could write a blog post for each book I've read so far this year.

A valuable piece of advice I received as I was contemplating becoming a leader of international study trips was:
When things don't go the way you thought they would and you realize you can't achieve your goal, you change your goal.
Isn't that amazing? Makes life infinitely better most days.

Anyway, this is me changing my goal. I will - I WILL - read all the books I set out to read this year but...the blog posts will happen when they happen. And one is happening today. And, with this post I will be more than doubling my finished book, as my new ministry colleague and most favourite person with the last name Harper says - strap in cause things are about to get a little crazy.

I've consulted my Goodreads account and according to it and this blog, the last book I mentioned here was Reasons to Stay Alive - book 7 of the intended 26 I want to read in 2018. But I have been reading. Slowly but surely. Here are the books I've read since my last post...

#8 - Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A lovely quick read about how to guide your child to respect themselves and others. To treat others as you would like yourself to be treated. To honour each and every being and expect the same in return. I think I knew/had learned most of what was mentioned in this book but there were still some very good realizations in this book.

#9 - Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey

I saw an interview with Ramsey about her activism as a result of making the short video Sh*t White Girls Black Girls She was catapulted into the limelight with the video and had a steep learning curve on the ins and outs of being an activist. She writes about what it means to be a black woman in America and how challenging it is for a black woman to navigate in the world. If you read only one chapter of this book, read the one about black women's hair - the politics of hair, the discrimination of hair and the rude behaviour associated with hair. 

#10 - Yes We (Still) Can - Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump by Dan Pfeiffer
As many of you know, I'm on a bit of an American politics kick these days. Dan Pfeiffer was very much an insider to the Obama Whitehouse and he continues to offer political commentary on the podcast, Pod Save America. Living through the chaos of the Trump Whitehouse, this book is a fascinating read. And...I want to share this story about my decision to read the book. I had been contemplating ordering it, especially since ordering it within a certain time would mean a certain good charity in the States would get a small cut of the book sales. But I was wavering on whether I would actually read a whole book on politics and forgot about it. At least I thought I did until a box from Amazon arrived at home and this book was in the package. I thought, 'oh, I guess I did order the book - huh.' And I read it. Meanwhile, my eldest son, who follows the same pollical commentaries as I do, asked if I had received a package from him lately. No. No I didn't, I told him. Finally, when he was visiting in August, he tells me that this book was the package that he sent. Oh! That's why I don't remember ordering the book! I thought I was losing it for a little while there. He knew I had it because he and I are connected on Goodreads and he saw that I was reading it despite not realizing the Amazon box had had a gift enclosure note that I had missed. I thanked him and then gave it to him to read.
#11 - More Ready Than You Realize: The Power of Everyday Conversations by Brian McLaren
An interesting read about the power of evangelism, testimony, story-telling and friendships. I really appreciate McLaren's gentle push and pull of going deeper in theological exploration.
#12 - The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs
After reading Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically, I figured he'd be worth reading again. This book is fun but tedious. It's basically a summary of the Encyclopedia Britannica interspersed with vignettes from his life with his wife and extended family - which are the nuggets of hilarity that kept me reading. I do feel a bit smarter having read the book but new bits of information I have are a bit esoteric and likely not very helpful in day to day life.
#13 - Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person - Shonda Rhimes
This book made the pile of books my dear hubby chose to read over the summer. I write that sentence like he chose the books in that pile. How it happened went more like this... 
Him: I think I'm going to read 6 or 7 books this summer.  Me: Oh, can I do that with you?
Him: Sure. Me: Do you need suggestions? 
Him: Sure. Me: Okay, this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one. 
Him: Sure. (He finished all seven books. I finished 4.) 
A friend had recommended Rhimes book so I added it to the pile. I wasn't so sure when I started the book but I found it to be a good read. Rhimes is responsible for all the good TV on Thursdays evenings (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, etc) but she woke up (metaphorically) one day to the realization that she was not living life to its full potential. She was not having fun. She was not living a full life. And this book is about how she figured it out and started living life the best she could.
#14 - The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller
This book was summer homework for the SVUC Board. A great way to help you get focused on what's important and how to accomplish what you'd like to achieve. Easy to read and worthy considering how it can help you get to where you want to go.
#15 - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by MLK Jr himself
This was a challenging read. Not because of the writing. But because of the terrible and desperate situation African Americans lived in before the Civil Rights Movement. I had no idea how immediately MLK was thrust into state and nation-wide leadership after he was ordained and called to his first congregation. How much his and his family's life was under constant threat. How VERY BADLY white people treated black people during the era of Jim Crow. This book is worth every minute it takes to read it.

So. There you have it. I'm up to 15 books out of the 26 on my reading schedule this year. Of Mess and Moxie by Jen Hatmaker is next. It promises to be good ready - Hatmaker regular gets told by Evangelical Christians that, because she's a woman, she has no business expressing her thoughts about theology, Jesus and God. I'm thinking she's a bit feisty and I like feisty.