Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sermon: Pentecost 18 - Year C

Someone once said that if you want to find out who the Christians are, just ask the poor. They’ll be able to tell you.

That’s the challenge that’s thrown at our feet in today’s gospel reading. Jesus wants us to help poor people. That’s no surprise. We’ve heard that so many times that maybe that message has grown as stale a week-old-mug-of-beer. Luke can’t stop talking about poor people. He’s like your obnoxious hippie cousin who still lives in the summer of love, even though he was born in 1978.

Luke is suggesting that our salvation has something to do with how we treat those who need our help.

At least that’s what it sounds like in today’s gospel. To get a sense of the priority Jesus places on helping poor folks, just look at this text. This is the only place in scripture where Jesus identifies someone explicitly before sending them to Hell.

And it’s not because he didn’t have faith in Jesus. It’s not because he wasn’t baptized. It wasn’t because he couldn’t keep his zipper zipped.

The rich man is sent to Hell because he ignored a poor person who needed help.

It’s a hard story to listen to. Where most of the world lives on less than $2.00 a day, this story is directed squarely at us.

This is rich vs poor. There’s no getting around it. And Jesus sets up the story in a way that would make Rush Limbaugh’s...(the whole thing here)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sermon: Pentecost 17 - Year C

I read a lot of business books. I find them to be the best source of cultural criticism around. I read them much to the chagrin of my leftier friends and colleagues.

Some books are dry and academic, filled with charts and stats that make my eyes crust over.

Others are the motivational type. Tony Robbins on caffeine pills. These books make my wife roll her eyes in either amusement or bemusement. I can’t tell which.

Most are feet-on-the-pavement practical. Which is the chief reason I read them.

I started reading these books while I was an intern. Which was new for me because I was told that business was about money. Period. And money meant greed. Greed meant oppression. And God wasn’t into greed and oppression. So whatever businesspeople brought to the church table was to be resisted or shunned. At least, that’s what my mentors and professors preached. And I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed unquestioningly.

But suddenly, I wasn’t in a classroom anymore. I wasn’t surrounded by folks who believed what I believed, where we could be as sanctimoniously abstract about the world as we wanted.

Where we could debate the finer points of theology, never letting the messiness of real-world-living interrupt our dissection of a bible verse - in the original Greek, of course.

Where we could pontificate about how sinful the world was – the world being large corporations and certain brands of politicians. Sinners.

The business world and their puppets in Parliament sullied the purity of the church world and were destroying the whole world.

Then I found myself immersed in a church where people expected more than jabbering. Nor were they interested in the self-righteous musings of a snooty-nosed kid who never had a real job. They wanted something more spiritually cavernous than hoity-toity thoughts about God or angry political sloganeering.

They wanted me to DO SOMETHING for the Kingdom. All of a sudden I had programs to develop, meetings to chair, and ministries to oversee. I had people to visit and prayers to pray. And no one was going to hold my hand along the way!

My supervisor then played the best trick – ever - on me. He showed...(the rest here)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Guest Blogger: Kevin Little, "Walking the Walk"

In his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, writer Ron Sider says "too much Christian social action is ineffective because Christian leaders call on government to legislate what they cannot persuade their church members to live." When I worked with politicians, we knew that petitions or motions passed with no follow-up meant nothing. However, if an organization sent evidence of its positive work in the community and asked for government funding, that always provoked a serious response.

Michael Poworoznyk, executive director of Metro Turning Point Centre, challenged 34 Christians (half from St. Luke’s United in Upper Tantallon and half friends of ours who wanted this experience) who walked the streets of Halifax’s inner city last Friday to consider what we would do if we had found our way to the city at age 15, having been sexually abused, distrusting authority, feeling angry and lost. We walked the streets together, asking ourselves: Where would we go? What would we do?

There are a range of services for the poor in Halifax’s uptown core. Often, these are poorly co-ordinated, underfunded and squeezed into one small section of our city. If we Christians see ourselves as disciples living out our witness, it is easy to see our current power structures as an empire, institutionally biased to protect the status quo.

But how do we confront that empire, the system that maintains an unequal distribution of wealth and power? After all, wasn’t it only a few weeks ago that North America’s leaders met behind closed doors with wealthy elites to discuss how this empire should go forward?

Christians are called to be prophets and advocates for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. There are more verses in the Bible on wealth than almost any other topic. Yet most sermons preached in our North American churches deal with sexual morality (fundamentalists), personal piety (traditionalists) or sentimental narcissism (liberals).

But surely we are called to confront not only governments and their policies (for starters, raising the level of social assistance and the national child benefit, and providing more social housing), but also to do as Sider suggests: lead by example. I know several Canadian churches that used their parking lots to create social housing units. St. George’s Anglican Church runs the amazing "Humanities 101." These actions make a statement to the general public and the government of the day. They prove that solidarity can and does work.

Some might suggest these approaches let the government off the hook. That may be true for passive supports; but my sense is the more Christians are directly involved in transformational ministry with the marginalized, the more governments can see positive results and feel compelled to join in. What social activists often fail to understand is that advocacy that is primarily confined to the call for entitlement programs does not address what is at the core of Christian and government inaction: a sense of hopelessness.

As long as people think the quest to reduce poverty is hopeless, they will fail to act, personally or collectively. Activists wring their hands and point to perpetual injustice; the middle-class gate their communities and quietly say to themselves, "Nothing will ever change." To break free from this, we need stories of solidarity, of liberation, or the momentum for justice can never get traction. Faith leads to imagination, which leads to sharing, which leads to a plan, which leads to action, which leads to transformation, which leads to hope.

Everywhere we walked Friday night, there was evidence of banks, grocery chains, and now even churches abandoning this neighbourhood. Churches with deep pockets and trust funds can continue on in spite of buildings that are nine-tenths empty, but churches here cannot.

I am sure the people I serve are tired of hearing that church is about mission, not buildings. We have a wonderful multi-purpose sanctuary, one that we gladly share with another denomination. But the bottom line is that the strength of our witness is less about that splendid structure and more about the call to transform the community we live in.

My own denomination’s transformational opportunity is Brunswick Street Mission. One morning a week at the 6 a.m. breakfast, I look forward to the relationships I share with the guests and volunteers. After breakfast, we gather in a garden created and cared for by these men and women, and we pray. Later, some of us study the Bible. Here we resolve to be agents of transformation in a broken world.

One way to financially assist the Mission with its work is to join The St. Luke’s Players, our youth drama team, as they perform The Cotton Patch Gospel on Friday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. at Brunswick Street United Church. The musical asks the question: What if Jesus came to the southern states in the 1950s? What would that look like? It’s edgy, fun and, most of all, the music soars.

Some of the cast walked with us last Friday. Most have spent their lives in the suburbs. The context Michael provided will no doubt ground their performance. But more than that, each of us saw on that evening what Michael and his staff offer the 65 people who sleep every night at the Turning Point: advocacy, solidarity, respect, dignity, hope. These are qualities we seek to persuade our fellow church members to live.

Kevin Little is a United Church minister living in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What's the Pay off - Part Two

(Read part one here)

I once heard a bonehead preacher rant about lonely people. “If they had a good relationship with God then they would never be lonely because God is our best friend!”

It was his way of telling randy university students that boyfriend/girlfriend relationships are not the epicenter of the known galaxy. “You don’t need a boyfriend,” he spewed. “All you need is Jesus. Let Jesus be your boyfriend.”

I guess he missed that part of the creation story where it said that it wasn’t good for the man to be alone. I’m guessing this applies to women as well.

But Gnostic heresies aside. I often hear the same sorts of things coming from pastors as it relates to their work.

“Don’t worry about results, just preach the gospel.”

“I don’t play the numbers game.”

And my fave:

“Jesus didn’t call us to be successful; he called us to be faithful.”

In other words, don’t blame the tree if it doesn’t bear fruit.

Of course, there’s truth in all these statements. We preach but it’s the Holy Spirit who convicts, numbers don’t tell the whole story, and Jesus does call us to be faithful.

But I know I’ve said each one of these things to justify ineffectiveness in my work. If the church is declining I can say that it’s God’s fault, not mine. More Gnostic heresies.

But as Lutherans – or Protestants in general – we’re stymied by our theology. Our theology tells us that salvation is by God’s grace, God’s initiative, God’s forgiveness. And we’re simply passive recipients of God’s saving love.

And while that’s true and I whole-heartedly affirm it, I also wonder if we inappropriately push that theology into our jobs. If God does everything, what does God need us for?

But if our churches are growing, we’re accused of selling out the gospel and buying into the consumer mindset that says that bigger is better. We must be telling people what they want to hear instead of proclaiming Jesus' hard road of salvation. It seems that for some church folks, the best churches have no people and fewer Christians.

The way I see it is that pastors, especially those of the mainline variety, are doing the wrong things. I think our job is to model the kind of discipleship we want to see in our congregations. But spend our time doing things that don't bear fruit. Endless committee meetings. Administrative trivia. Surfing the internet.

Instead, we should be visiting, connecting church resources to community needs, teaching our people how to use their gifts for God's glory, doing personal evangelism and prophetic witness.

But too often, our sermons are hastily thrown down on paper on the way to bed on Saturday night. We put our iPods in our ears as we walk down the street so we won't be accosted. And our people's gifts, our best resources aside from the Holy Spirit, go unused.

I know I all this because this describes me. There are folks in my church who are better Christians than I am. And God bless ‘em.

But that’s the challenge, nonetheless. As pastors we cannot abdicate this responsibility. It’s not that we are the most holy or spiritual. It’s that God has asked us to shepherd God’s flock. God has asked us to be leaders.

And we lead best with our lives.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Just for "Cleetus"

Thank God for Dry Beds and Strong Coffee.

I slept poorly last night. Part of the problem was that our newly toilet-trained three-year-old screamed for me at 12:43 am. She needed to go pee. At least she didn’t do it in her bed. For that we can be thankful.

But when I’m up, I’m up. I can’t get back to sleep. So I watched a few West Wing episodes and crawled back to the bed at 2:30. But stared at the clock until 4:00 or so.

8:00 came mighty early this morning. Thank God for strong java.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sermon: Pentecost 15 - Year C

This is a message I can’t spin. I can’t put lipstick on it and send it out to shake its money maker. I just have to let it tell its story.

Jesus is saying that we are to live a different life than the one we may have been taught, a life that’s an assault on the values of our culture.

Where the culture is obsessed with...(The whole thing here)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Cancer Causing Technology

I picked up an Mp3 Player the other day. It's an early birthday present. All was good until I found this warning in the operating guide:

WARNING: The cord(s) included with this product may contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.

Has anyone else heard of this? I'm taking this back to the store tomorrow. What on earth are the manufacturers thinking?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sermon: Pentecost 14 - Year C

She started off at St. John’s as a “patron” as they were called. She came looking for a sandwich and became the manager -and an Anglican – in that order, along the way.

“So you want me to sit with folks and clear tables, stack chairs, that sort of thing?” I asked.

“No, I mean your job is to sit at the table, eat your lunch, and talk to people.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a job. Wouldn’t you rather I helped out with the cooking?”

“No. You don’t get to cook until you know who you’re cooking for,” she said, walking me to a table at the back.

“This is Kevin,” she announced to the three guys sitting together, “he’s new, so I want you to be...(read the whole thing here)