Friday, 20 April 2018

Being a Good Cat-herd.

Have you ever been out on a walk through your neighbourhood and heard the plaintive miaowing of a kitten? What would you do? My thoughts in such a situation would be to look all around for where the cry was coming from. I’ll tell you a story of one experience I heard about. Well the first thing is that you probably won’t find the source of the cries until you looked up—way up—into the pine tree in your neighbour’s yard. But, there you see a new kitten, crying for all it was worth. As kittens frequently do, it had gone exploring and was now afraid or unsure of how to come down. You stand under the tree, calling “Here, kitty, kitty,” trying your best to persuade the kitten to come back down.

I wonder if you would go home and borrow some treats from your own cats – if you have them - to lure the kitten down the tree. However, nothing works! If it was me I might give up at this point. So, your neighbour comes home and hopefully as she comes over to say hello, she will hear the kitten’s cries. Hopefully, quickly, she would begin calling the cat by name. It would be quieted once it heard her voice, and would even take a few steps down the branch, but then like cats do, maybe it would lay down and refuse to come any further.

To continue, after several attempts, the neighbour, not an especially young woman, pulls a garden bench over to the tree and begins climbing. One could suggest that we call someone else to help, but this is refused by the neighbour who wanted to get her kitten down right away because it might fall. By this stage I think I would be standing underneath holding my breath as the neighbour began to climb up, branch by branch. I wouldn’t feel confident to climb. Finally, she would get to be level with the kitten. I imagine she would tuck it lovingly into her jacket and slowly back down the tree, saying soothing words all the while.

This type of story helps me think about this week’s reading from John 10. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” That cat was not at all tempted by pleas to come down to safety; it had no idea who this person that found it was. The neighbour used the same words and tone of voice in her calls to the kitten, but the results were different. Why? She knew the cat by name, and it knew her voice. Just knowing that she was close seemed to calm the kitten, even though it still could not bring itself to climb down to safety.

I would have been very reluctant to risk a broken limb by climbing the tree, but the neighbour did not think twice. She was much more concerned about the risk to her kitten than the risk to herself. On that day, and I am sure many others, she was a good “cat-herd.” The image of the good shepherd is one that is used for God many times throughout Scripture. It evokes feelings of tender care in us even today, despite our unfamiliarity with sheep and shepherds.

Those who heard Jesus speak these words would have had a far deeper understanding of sheep and those who cared for them. Owners often kept sheep for years and years as providers of wool rather than as meat. Shepherds stayed with their flock by day and by night, protecting them from both human and animal predators, as well as from their own silly tendencies to wander away. Because the shepherd spent almost all his time with his sheep, he learned their individual qualities. He knew who was prone to wander, who hogged the grassiest parts of the pasture, and who was most often cut out of the flock.

The sheep also knew him. If another person called out to them, they would not answer. If the shepherd called, however, the flock would move toward him. As he walked ahead, calling their names, they would follow. Some of the sheep may have been more endearing than others; certainly, some followed more closely. But good shepherds showed the same care for the more recalcitrant members of their flock as for all the others. How blessed we are that we, too, have a good shepherd in Jesus Christ! He promises to care for us, and he showed the extent of that love on the cross, where he gave his life willingly for us. Like sheep, there is nothing that we do to earn such great love; it is given to us freely, often in spite of ourselves.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Trying to Find Order Out of Chaos.

Imagine being married for 13, 14, 15, maybe even 20 years or more……   and thinking that things were generally pretty good between you and your spouse. There were occasional ups and downs, like every marriage. And then, out of the blue one day your spouse comes to you and says, "I've filed for divorce." “I’m leaving you permanently non-negotiably.” After the shock wears off, you try marriage counselling for a time, to try and patch things up, to understand what the problem is...but nothing works and a year or so later, you are divorced. Some of you may not have to imagine it. For some of you, this may be your reality.

Or, imagine working for a large, multi-national corporation for many years, giving your time, your effort, your ingenuity, thinking that this large, secure, wealthy corporation will always have need of such fine employees as yourself. But then, when you are in your mid-50s, the corporation alters its organizational structure so that one Friday afternoon, without any warning, you receive a letter informing you that in less than a month your services will no longer be needed. You feel unwanted, rejected, bitter, and without any hope. You then find yourself out on the street, over-skilled in a bad global economy. Some of you may not have to imagine it. For some of you, this may be your reality.

I could give many examples but here is one last example. Imagine that for one reason or another you have just moved from one part of the country to another or to another country. You have left behind friends, neighbours, maybe family, but also routines, schools, churches, favourite restaurants, and the cleaners who know just how you like things done. In your new "home" you have no friends and only a handful of acquaintances. Your neighbourhood seems cold and distant. The grocery stores don't carry favourite brands. People talk funny all around you. You can't find anything good to say about your new "home," in fact, it hardly feels like home at all. Some of you may not have to imagine it. For some of you, this may be your reality.

I could give many examples but here is one last example. Imagine that for one reason or another you have just moved from one part of the country to another or to another country. You have left behind friends, neighbours, maybe family, but also routines, schools, churches, favourite restaurants, and the cleaners who know just how you like things done. In your new "home" you have no friends and only a handful of acquaintances. Your neighbourhood seems cold and distant. The grocery stores don't carry favourite brands. People talk funny all around you. You can't find anything good to say about your new "home," in fact, it hardly feels like home at all. Some of you may not have to imagine it. For some of you, this may be your reality. 

We do this by a variety of methods: family, work, recreation, money, to name a few and we attempt to keep chaos at predictable and safe. We throw ourselves into work hoping to be rewarded with money and respect. We pursue hobbies and vocations thinking they will make us better people or that they will fill a void in our lives. We gather as much wealth as we can, fooled into believing that life can be care-free. However, we choose to order our lives that order will at some point break apart.

No family is going to bring enough love, no job is secure enough, no amount of money is great enough to distance us from the given of chaos. Family relationships often disappoint. We may find ourselves in a dead-end job, or be laid off, or "down-sized." Money solves nothing; each income bracket produces its own problems and challenges. Chaos happens, whether we are rich or poor, young or old, living in the city, suburb, or country, our carefully ordered existence will, at some point, disintegrate, resulting in disorder.

This moment of chaos which follows the collapse of order is an experience of crucifixion. Like Jesus, who did not seek the cross neither do we seek chaos. It is painful. We suffer in it. It feels like we have died. When our lives are being built up, God is with us. When they fall apart, and we crash, God is with us as well. The Christian community is not a self-improvement society where we work to get just a little bit better each day of our lives. We are prepared for things to get ugly and nasty and neither do we fear death, for out of death emerges new life. As slowly and quietly as dawn emerges on a still, spring morning, so the new life, a new order, a new creation emerges out of the chaos.

Friday, 6 April 2018

I May Be Wrong, but I Doubt It.

“I May Be Wrong, but I Doubt It,” is the title of a collection of columns by a late and irascible journalist named Mike Royko. The interesting context of doubt: doubt standing in the place of certainty, Royko's certainty that his observations about Chicago city politics and life in general are right on the mark. This, perhaps, serves to point us in the right direction with Thomas and this whole episode in some closed room in Jerusalem – found in the scripture from John’s Gospel this week. For to get anywhere with this story (John 20:19-31), one absolutely must begin with the understanding that doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is indifference, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel remind us.

Doubt, writes Frederick Beuchner, is the ants in the pants of faith. Doubt keeps faith awake and moving. Whether your faith is that Jesus is the son of God or that he is not, if you don't have any doubts, says Beuchner, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Thomas is not a doubter. Thomas is a true believer. He has made that clear earlier in John's Gospel. It is Thomas who, when Jesus insists on going to Judea, declares, "Let
us also go with him that we may die with him." And it is Thomas who makes the first explicit acknowledgment that Jesus is God: "My Lord and my God!"  

This loyal believer who has given us the expression "Doubting Thomas" deserves to be remembered better than this. He did not refuse belief and wanted to believe but did not dare without further evidence. Because of his belief, loyalty, and goodwill, Jesus gives him a sign after refusing to do so for the Pharisees. Please note that the sign did not create faith in Thomas, but it released the faith that was in him already. Thomas is the patron saint of all who believe and still want to see for themselves.

As we, or others we know, face the daily darkness of depression, disease, loneliness, racism, ethnic hatred, and religious intolerance, we know that Jesus is in the midst of it. Any one of these situations could be enough to cause some doubt in our resurrection faith. Any one of these situations could be enough to send us to God asking for a sign. Our wounds are very much on the surface every day. Anyone can come into a church and look at around and see our grief, our pain, and our suffering. Anyone can come in to our churches nearly any Sunday at any service and see people reaching out to Jesus for healing of whatever it is that hurts: mind, spirit or body, in themselves or loved ones.  

The Lord still confirms his presence in the scripture from John this week, as he acts in his unique and unmistakable way. Jesus enters into our experience by his own initiative, breaking through all barriers. Jesus is there despite "the doors being shut" ...... from fear. The familiar greeting of shalom was spoken with authority with upraised hands spread in the familiar gesture of blessing - this was the needed action to calm the disciples fear. There is nothing quite like the word of Jesus to deal with our fears and nothing like the presence of God as Jesus to deal with our aloneness. 

As indicated Jesus enters into our setting, to be with us at our points of need, helping us to deal with the present that constantly assails us. For the disciples, the problem was fear that had reduced them to cowards hiding in fright. Jesus dealt with them at their point of need and continues to deal with his followers at their points of need, no matter what they are.

The second shalom in this reading from John was with the future in view. I believe Jesus was helping those present to move towards going beyond that hour that they were experiencing. As God has sent me, even so I send you. The "breathing" upon them signified the freshness that would be with them, their life and work. It was a symbol of their reception of the very spirit of Jesus so that they were open to further gifts and guidance to serve God.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Why Enter the Sacred Space?

That first Easter experience seems somewhat lacklustre, especially in the lives of those first responders. The story involves three people who were followers of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the beloved disciple are the first to the tomb that morning. John doesn't tell us why Mary comes. Maybe she is there to grieve. Maybe she comes to remember and give thanks for the life of this saviour who had changed her life forever. 

Maybe Mary comes because she needs some time alone to think and to sort out what the past few days' events mean to her. John doesn't tell us. As Mary arrives she sees that the stone is rolled back from the entrance of the tomb. Immediately she leaves without further investigation. Mary tells Peter and the beloved disciple. Once they know they too run to the tomb, with the beloved disciple getting there first.

Peter looks in and sees the place where Jesus had been, and nothing is there. The beloved disciple looks at the same scene, and the Scripture tells us he believes. Then, they go home. Mary now encouraged by the boldness of the other two wants to take a look for herself. She too sees the place, only now there are two angels, one sitting at the foot of where Jesus had been and the other at the head. "Who are you looking for?" asks one of the angels. Mary begs him to tell her where they have taken Jesus' body.

As she turns around she sees Jesus but does not recognise him. She supposes he is the gardener and asks him if he knows where they have taken the body. If he will but tell her she will go and get the body. Jesus then calls her by name, and immediately she recognises him. Jesus then instructs her not to touch him and to go and tell his followers, which she does. What a strange and mysterious story.

The greatest event in human history is dramatically unfolding, and the first three eye-witnesses have very strange and mixed responses at best. Mary reduces it to grave robbing, the beloved disciple John sees and believes, Peter sees nothing. After witnessing the empty tomb, Peter and John just go home. Where is all the hype, the celebration, the reality of the fact that what Jesus predicted happened—no party, no ticker tape parade, no news coverage, nothing. Isn't this just like God? It seems God has God's way of working in human history. This story sounds very familiar.

Maybe the message in this Easter season is for us to allow God to be who God is, to do what God does, and in the time, God deems necessary in our lives. Maybe that is the real power of this story. God acting in history to change the shape and movement of the world, and people just responding in such different ways trying to grasp all that God is doing.

The older I get the more comfortable I become with allowing God to be God. I say now—more than I ever would admit when I was younger— that I just don't know. I am coming to realise that maybe knowing isn't what this faith business is all about in the first place. Maybe what this is really about is what God is doing and the power of my just trusting it and giving it the freedom to do what it needs to do in my life and to lead where it needs to lead.

Have you ever been white water rafting? The last time for me was in Skippers Canyon in Aotearoa (NZ). Before we climbed in the boat, the guide gave us some instructions about what to do if we found ourselves in the water. He told us to keep our feet up, trust the buoyancy of the life vest, and to enjoy the ride. The movement of God in the world seems to be like that. God is moving and working at God's pace, in God's time, and in God's direction. Maybe our response needs to be to keep our heads up, trust what God is doing, and just enjoy the ride!

God loves no matter what our response is. That is the good news. God brings resurrection because of who God is. The reality of the empty tomb reminds us God is at work in the world doing what only God can do. God goes about God's business; our lives and the life of the world will never be the same again. Mary came looking for the Jesus who had died. Peter and John came looking in response to news of a possible grave robbing of Jesus' body. Why do we, you and I, come? As we enter sacred space, who is it we came looking for?

Friday, 30 March 2018

Pivotal Life Moments.

My pivotal moment of faith was not a moment but a journey toward accepting a call to ministry. A Church Army Sister began the journey of introducing me to theological questions and the way Jesus lived that have emerged into a lifelong relationship with God and a way to understand my feeling of God’s tugging at my heart. The tug became stronger as I completed Pharmacy School and I was part way through theological studies and finally chose to offer for ministry in the Diocese of Dunedin, the place of my birth.

Pivotal moments of faith are not limited to calls to the ministry. Each time we encounter God, our faith relationship with God changes. Some of our God encounters are more significant to our faith development than others. Thoughts about that tug come to me each year at this time as I reflect upon the Passion of Jesus and particularly his crucifixion.

 For many years, James Michener felt a desire to write novels, but when a plane in which he was riding crashed on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia he acted on his dream. The next day he began writing Tales of the South Pacific. Most of the biblical call stories are similarly dramatic. Moses heard the voice of God, from a bush that was burning without being consumed, urging him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. Saul of Tarsus had a revelation of light and the voice of Jesus that radically changed him to St Paul, and his mission from persecution to proclamation of Christianity.

Isaiah experienced an epiphany of forgiveness at the throne of God, and Jeremiah was empowered through a vision of God. The scriptures are full of such pivotal moments of faith and transformation. Jesus may have experienced a personal struggle with identity and calling. The Gospels tell us that that Jesus’ understanding of his call and purpose emerged through various pivotal moments in his life. Whether through a dramatic revelatory experience, or through an encounter with God over time, God’s call offers a pivotal moment of faith for many.

Such calls demand a response, and our response influences our faith. Our response to God’s call is seldom enthusiastic. When the Lord told Jonah to go to Nineveh, he fled in the opposite direction. When calamity fell upon his ship, Jonah urged the sailors to throw him overboard knowing that the hound of heaven was pursuing him. We are told that a large fish swallowed Jonah and deposited him on shore. That passage reminds us that while some run from God’s call, others offer excuses. “Ah, Lord GOD!” said Jeremiah. “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6).

The Lord touched Jeremiah’s mouth and gave him words to say. Moses stuttered. “O my Lord,” said Moses, “I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). In response, God sent Moses’ brother Aaron to speak for him. Isaiah’s response is typically human. Prostrate before the Lord he claims to be unworthy. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). A seraph touches Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal, and his response to the grace of God is to enthusiastically step forward as a prophet to Israel, “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).

Feeling the tug of God on our heart initiates a struggle with God. Some run away from God’s call. Others make excuses, and still others claim to be unworthy. The struggle with God initiates a pivotal moment of faith and an empowerment never before experienced. When we read the scriptures dealing with Jesus’ arrest, trial, death and resurrection we hear him struggling with a pivotal moment. As a forgiven and reconciled individual, Isaiah seemed renewed in faith and fearless in his task to confront Israel with their sin. In every biblical story involving a call from God, God empowers those who are called with the gifts necessary to accomplish the task before them.

The call of God offers mystery, risk, and lack of personal reward. God’s call is always to serve others. The focus of the call of Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah is to save Israel. For Jonah, it was to save Nineveh. The task for Jesus and for Paul was to share God’s love in an ever-widening circle. Each one felt the tug of God upon his heart and struggled with how he could best serve God. Each of us may discover how God wants us to spend our love. Our response to God’s call may be to run away, to make excuses, or to express our unworthiness. Discerning a call from God always initiates a pivotal moment of faith and a new relationship with God.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Courage to Act In Love.

Each year those leading worship and preaching are asked to choose between emphasising either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. They have distinct emphases, it is argued, and doing both is too much, too confusing. Perhaps. But I think a few notes of frenzy and confusion are in order to capture the mood and events of the week we call “holy.” It is a week of great swings in emotions, fortunes, and more. 

The key to navigating it all is locating a particular element that ties the various passages and emphases together. The element that I will choose to reflect on this year is courage. Notice, for instance, that in the accounts of both the Triumphal Entry and the Last Supper, Jesus makes preparations. He identifies ahead of time someone with a colt and makes arrangements to use it on that day. Similarly, he contracts with someone earlier for a room in which to share the Passover meal with his disciples.

When we reflect on this we can see that Jesus chooses his actions. His fate is not some tragic accident or unexpected twist of fate. Rather, he looks his destiny in the eye and chooses to embrace it, even when it includes, as St Paul notes often in the epistles he wrote, death on the cross. This is the very definition of courage, as courage is not having no fear, but rather acting faithfully in spite of fear.

For this reason, Paul sings, Jesus is praised— not because of his divine nature or status of equality with God, but rather because out of great love he gave all those things up, taking on our lot and our life in order to be joined to us in every possible way. The result is that wherever we may go and whatever we may experience, we know that Jesus has already been there. And where Jesus now is, we are promised we shall someday be. In other words, given the choice Jesus didn’t choose the easy way but out of love chose a way that would lead to a very gruesome death.

Jesus is revealing, perhaps too subtly, that what he brings is very different from what previous rulers and most of the rulers of today offer. Yet the crowds missed that then and many of us still miss that today. Most of the disciples don’t understand it. They’re too busy calling for salvation, and they know exactly what they want that to look like. This is one of the challenges of Holy Week— letting go of what we want salvation to be and allowing ourselves to be open to what it is.

Easter helps us not to fear death; however, most of us are still afraid of dying. This coming week, Holy Week we remember a lot of dying. The recollections of betrayal and false accusation and crucifixion cause us to tremble, but the dying begins here, with branches in our hands. Dying well takes honesty and courage no matter what the circumstances. How honest are we ready to be? Are we honest about our discomfort at being touched?

Are we honest about our uncertainty at the story of the crucifixion? Our sense of being overwhelmed or underwhelmed by a story that’s been told many times? Are we willing to be honest that Jesus isn’t the king we are expecting? Are we prepared to die to the notion that goodness, our right behaviour, can make us right with God? Are we prepared to be honest that we don’t always look for Jesus in others, and we do not always let people see Jesus in us?

In this Holy Week, are we prepared to die, within ourselves and in our actions, to our prejudices, fears, and insecurities? Are we prepared to crucify injustice, anger, judgment, and mistrust? Will we cry, “Hosanna to the King of Kings,” and mean, “Save us, Jesus, save us”? Are we prepared to seek goodness in our world, speak out about injustice and act in a way that is loving to all creation both human and otherwise?

Friday, 16 March 2018

Like a Kernel of Wheat.

This excerpt of scripture is from what is commonly interpreted and called Jeremiah’s “Little Book of Consolation” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). It points to the classic tension between head religion and heart religion, the tension between what we know about our faith and how we live faith from the heart. Jeremiah wrote to people who knew God’s word but were on the verge of being consumed by their sins and their enemies for failing to live what they knew. The revival of religion they had experienced years before, under King Josiah, had waned and there they were, in the sin-rut again, with the prophet’s feet nailed to his soapbox while he screamed judgment and warning against the people and their leaders because of their sin (their turning away from God and the life he called them to lead).

After such railing, the consolation offered is almost too good to be true. The tension between head knowledge and righteous living is resolved by changing where the Law is written— from stone tablets to the human heart. Our culture often envisions covenant relationships in terms of loyalty or commitment. This may have been true in part for adherents to the old covenant, but God has given us a new covenant. So, for Christians this new covenant brings God into such intimacy with humankind that it minimises or even eliminates our human propensity for breaking God’s heart.

But how? We find clues in the remaining readings from the Lectionary for this week (Hebrews 5:5-10 and John 12:20-33). We are encouraged to find reconciliation with God through Christ and a diligent aspiration to become the people of God through Christian practices such as study and prayer. The passages from Hebrews and John remind us that the mission of God in Christ was to reconcile the world to God reminding us to become familiar with God’s nature, with God’s ways, and with God’s will; thus, writing the word (Word) on our hearts.

In John 12 the appearance of the Greeks who sought after Jesus has always been something of a reminder to me that we never know who is going to be intrigued with the message about the Christ about the resurrected Jesus. These people seem to come from left field, and Philip seems a little puzzled as to what to do with them. Ever have someone like that come to your church or your home and ask challenging, awkward and important questions? We all say we want to reach or get to know new people— but then when we  get somebody who is really from beyond the edge of our normal constituency, we struggle.

At such time we find ourselves asking the internal question, “How did they get here?” To Jesus, it seemed to represent an important development; it is almost as if he says, “Okay, you guys; if the Greeks are showing up, then it’s just about time to kick this thing into high gear.” Does Jesus know then that this means the proverbial stuff is about to hit the fan? He seems to intimate such knowledge with his prayer about being troubled and asking God to save him from the hour.

Certainly, the humanity of Jesus is a significant aspect of our shared faith. We can’t always make Jesus into Superman when he must surmount a difficult obstacle, calling on some sort of magical power not available to the rest of us. What God had him do was hard and he must have found himself somewhat reluctant, at times, to carry it forward. To journey in life knowing that his lot was to go through an horrible death through crucifixion must have been really something for Jesus. And, yet, the Saviour is willing to play the part of the kernel of wheat falling to the ground— there is new life yet to come even in the midst of an impending burial.