Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sermon: Pentecost 16 - Year A

An oddity to be sure. A glow in the distance. A fire in the mountain. A burning bush that it not consumed. What would YOU think it was?

Moses had more curiosity than sense. He abandoned his sheep in the valley to go snooping around on God’s holy mountain.

Maybe it would help if you visualize who Moses was and what he was doing. You might be picturing Charlton Heston striding confidently up the mountain with a decisive hunger in his eyes, his booming baritone belying any fear he might have said to possess. With his chiseled jaw and determined gait he marches purposefully up the side of the cliffs, preparing to meet his God.

After all, his climb is an ascent to his destiny where he will receive his sacred mandate to free God’s people from slavery to lead them to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey; a divine charge that they would have to pry from his cold dead hands.

It’s a scene only Cecil B DeMille’s grandiose imagination could create. The Ten Commandments is no mere movie. It’s an event. An experience. The ultimate triumph of good over evil, righteousness over tyranny, and faithfulness over idolatry. Four hours of unadulterated edification, best to be seen without commercial interruptions.

But scrub that picture from your eyes. That’s not the story the bible tells. When you read the story from Exodus you’ll notice...(whole thing here)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Another Near Miss

After last month’s near miss, I figured that you get one major scare and then life moves on.

But yesterday, while at Whoop-Up Days (Lethbridge’s answer to the Calgary Stampede) our four-year-old came within a hair of being trampled by a team of horses pulling a wagon.

Apparently this driver wasn’t supposed to be taking the wagon through the midway. But he did, anyways. N froze when she saw the horses coming straight at her. After all, she’s only a couple feet tall and the horses are massive. And her being so small the driver couldn’t see her.

If my wife hadn’t happened to glance in N’s direction, pulling her away at the very last second, yesterday would have ended horribly. The crowd, I’m told was quite shocked by what almost happened, and yelled at the driver, who seemed oblivious to the fact that he almost killed a little girl.

My wife called the Whoop-Up Days organizers to let them know what happened. Our four-year-old thinks it’s all very funny.

UPDATE:
The Whoop-Up Days organizers called yesterday and were VERY apologetic. They've changed the route for the horse and wagon (which they'll monitor) and offered my wife a free ticket for this year or next. As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the worm! or some such thing.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Obama and Matthew 25



I usually try to stay away from American politics on this blog (at least, as of late), but this pro-Obama ad from the Matthew 25 Network, I thought, was an excellent, thinly veiled attack on John McCain. They're saying that the GOP doesn't have a lock on religious votes. And they brought out the big guns to prove it.

(Kirby Jon Caldwell, a pastor I greatly admire, endorsed Bush in 2000 and 2004. He presided over Jenna Bush's recent wedding. This year he's endorsing Obama.)

But I wonder if this ad is a response to Rick Warren's Q 'n A of the candidates last weekend. Where "non-partisan" Warren soft-balled McCain the hard questions he asked Obama.

Personally, I don't get how so-called "values voters" can endorse McCain over Obama, given McCain's history of adultery.

Either they're simply lock-step Republicans who can't see beyond their own political agenda, or they have blinders on, thinking that one moral issue (adultery)is less offensive than another (a woman's right to choose).

What is needed is a REAL conversation about the issues. The swift boaters need to stay docked. Let Obama and McCain deal with what affects everyday people, the American's role in the world, climate change, etc.

But that won't happen. But I'm glad that Matthew 25 is engaged in the process, giving voice to a version of biblical Christianity that is often lost in a raging storm of vitriol and lies.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon: Pentecost 14 - Year A

Paul talks about the “remnant.” Meaning a small group of believers who keep the faith pure against so much ungodliness in the world. After the community of believers had been so thoroughly corrupted by the world, Paul identified that little tiny church in Rome, probably no larger than 10 or 12 believers, as the remnant who will keep the faith alive, a tiny light in the vast darkness of the world, a candle glowing in the night, a drop of clean, undiluted godliness in a poisoned planet.

But I wonder what Paul would have said about today’s first reading from Genesis. In this story, known as the “Joseph saga” (Most of you know it better as “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) the line between the world and God’s people mists over to the point of being indistinguishable. This story seems to suggest that God isn’t limited to those who claim to be God’s people. God seems freer than what we might initially perceive.

On the surface this looks like a story of hard work paying off, with a little forgiveness and reconciliation thrown in to jerk a few theological tears. The stuff of good movies and snappy musicals.

Joseph was the guy you hated in High School. You know the one I mean. The Golden Boy, the Favoured One, who seemed good at everything. He was captain of the football team and he dated the head cheerleader. He won math awards, wrote for the school newspaper, played Hamlet in community theatre, sang solos at Christmas, volunteered in a homeless shelter, and couldn’t decide whether he’d be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist when he grew up, so he thought he’d be both. And you just knew he could pull it off.

You couldn’t stand him. Not just because he was better at everything than you were. You didn’t like him because he liked himself so much. His arrogance was breathtaking.

And he enjoyed showing off. His Emotional I.Q. hovered in George Bush realms.

He was oblivious to his brothers’ scowls. He didn’t notice their clenched jaws and furrowed brows. He simply didn’t see how badly his arrogance made his brothers want to tear out their ear hair.

It’s no wonder that his brothers wanted to get rid of him. He made them look bad. Really bad. And he flashed his egotistical white teeth while doing so.

You couldn’t accuse Joseph of putting on a show. He knew himself. He knew he was talented. He knew that he could succeed at anything he put his mind to.

Even his dreams stroked his ego. He was a dreamer. Some said it was God’s dreams that lived inside him. Others believed he simply dreamt what he wanted his life to be.

Maybe it was both.

But Joseph also knew...(whole thing here)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Messy? Moi?

Today I cleaned my office. A better word might be purge. I was ruthless, throwing out a bunch of junk, tossing old journals and magazines into the recycling, scrapping goo off my desk, etc.

For those who know me know that I have trouble keeping my work space tidy. Unfortunately, people often confuse untidiness with being disorganized. I’m actually quite organized. In my job I have to juggle quite a few tasks at once and, for the most part, I pull it off. I rarely lose things (although I can be forgetful), am rarely late for meetings or appointments, and have a detailed "to-do" list that is constantly being updated. So don't confuse messiness with sloth.

It’s not that I’m a slob. I shower regularly and wear clean clothes. I chew with my mouth closed and try to say “please” and “thank you.”

Nor am I a pack-rat. I feel no displeasure in throwing things out. In fact, I love it when my shelves are bare.

I simply don’t see mess. Mess doesn’t register with me. I don’t recognize it as chaos the way most people do.

But now my desk is clean and I have newly emptied shelves. My files are in order and my Kleenex box is full. We’ll see how long this lasts.

I’m guessing 2 days.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sermon: Pentecost 13 - Year A

What causes you to doubt your faith? What causes you to stop trusting God? What causes you to think that faith is merely an Alice in Wonderland story we tell ourselves when life starts to hurt?

Or DO you doubt? Do you question your faith? Do you question God?

I know that, for many of you, faith comes easy. You see God in action as clearly as you see the shine on my head. God’s handiwork is everywhere your eyes turn. And when you close your eyes, you hear God talking to you. You can’t “prove” its God chatting with you. But you wouldn’t mistake God’s milky voice for anything else.

For others of you, God is a rumour that you hope is true. You’ve caught glimpses of God here and there. Shadows. Memories. Stories half heard, songs less understood. But you’ve heard enough to trust that God is – somehow – doing something in the world. And you figure that, even if there’s a 95 percent chance you’re wrong, you’ll still believe. Because the stories half heard and songs less understood are too beautiful to toss away.

And for others, faith might sound like a cruel joke. A tall tale told by an idiot. Sound and fury signifying nothing. Maybe you’ve seen the world’s ugliness first hand and no amount of worship will scrub your eyes clean. Maybe you’ve felt grief so horrific that your soul has been ripped to shreds. Maybe you’ve prayed until your knees are bloodied and knuckles bruised, and still – nothing – God hasn’t returned the call.

Or maybe you’re back and forth, up and down, between all of this. Maybe some days your faith is as strong as God’s holy mountain, and other days, you can’t see your faith through a microscope. Maybe you’re wishing you could believe like other people.

And if you are, look...(whole thing here)

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Hearing a word from God

I’m still on “vacation” which means I don’t have to preach tomorrow. I get to listen to someone else preach tomorrow morning.

When I was a musician I had trouble listening to other trombone players. I couldn’t hear the music. I could only compare my playing to the guy (usually a guy) on stage.

When I became a conductor things became worse. I couldn’t listen to a concert without a critical ear. Musical interpretation, phrasing, dynamics, balance were slices that didn’t make a whole piece when added up. At least to my hearing. I often felt the urge to take over because I preferred what I heard in my head to what was being presented in front of me.

Pretty arrogant, eh?

The same thing happens when I hear other preachers. I have pretty high standards and I want other preachers to meet them. I don’t always know what that sounds like. But when I hear a bad sermon, a lazy preacher, poor interpretation, cheesy stories, or whatever, I get angry.

I get angry because I genuinely come to church looking for a word from God. I come hungry for a transforming message.

And when some preacher makes a mockery of the pulpit, God’s voice is silenced. When God’s mouthpiece uses tacky illustrations or resorts to clich├ęs, I feel cheated. When preachers offer a “chat” rather than feeding me the bread of life, I feel like I need a shower.

The gospel means “good news.” And that’s what I come looking for. Because my week is often jammed with bad news. I need to know that Jesus is alive and God is doing something. I need to know how and where I can find God, even if God is right in front of my nose.

I need to know how my life impacts the world. I need to know there is forgiveness when I fail and encouragement when I despair. I need to know that I am loved.

I imagine that’s why most people come to church. It’s not as if there aren’t other options. God draws them in because that’s where they need to be.

But it’s not as if folks who stay home don’t need what people in church need. That’s why it’s our job as church folks to bring people in to God’s house of resurrection. That’s why the Christian life is one big sermon illustration.

Or better, the Christian life is about living in a different reality – God’s reality – than where others live. This doesn’t mean that we’re superior to anyone else. But it does place a heavy obligation on us. Bearing witness to God’s love and mercy is harder than it looks. It takes strong hands and a thick skin.

I hope my preaching does all that. My congregation deserves it.

So, tomorrow, I hope I hear a word from God. A word that’ll help me live the resurrection life.

I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Questions

When I read some of my blog posts (especially the last one) I wonder if people think I have a hate-on for the church.

I don’t. I CAN’T. I’m nose deep in church life. Church people are some of the finest people in the world. I don’t want to give the impression that I have nothing but admiration and respect for those faithful servants of Christ toiling away for the kingdom. And I see churches doing phenomenal work in service to God and the world. And I'm grateful for every second I'm able to serve as a pastor. Even those days when I fantasize about walking away.

I just have questions. Lots and lots of questions.

For example, while in Mexico I read Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood. It’s about a Microsoft pooh-bah who turned in his key to the executive washroom to build schools in Nepal, creating the Room to Read organization along the way. You may have heard of it.

Wood talked about how quickly the organization grew, how positively people responded to his vision of building schools and libraries in developing countries, how hard work, tenacity, and luck paid off.

I have a few books on my shelf like this, except they’re about churches or ministries. Books on how the Dream Center in LA grew so quickly and unexpectedly.

Or how Willow Creek or Saddleback exploded with growth in the 70’s and 80’s.

Or how Mars Hill
, Grand Rapids outgrew their building so swiftly they had to buy an old shopping mall to house their mushrooming congregation.

And they all attribute their growth to God and prayer. Hours and hours of prayer. They say that, without the countless hours on their knees, they wouldn’t have seen such success.

But I got thinking. Room to Read grew almost uncontrollably in the first few years of its existence. Without the hours of prayer. No mention of God. At all.

I thought about it some more and wondered, Does God REALLY want us praying for hours and hours before starting something new?

Or is such prayer a form of holy procrastination? Does God just want us to get on with our jobs, knowing that God gave us two hands and a brain for a reason?

It’s not that I’m against prayer. Obviously not. Prayer’s an important tool in my ministry toolbox.

I just wonder if prayer is meant to change us rather than to spur God to action. Prayer helps us focus on God’s priorities and makes us say those priorities out loud.

We choose our words carefully when we pray. At least I do. I only use words that I know are part of God’s vocabulary.

I don’t pray for hateful things to happen to bad people because I know God doesn’t honour such a prayer.

I don’t pray for money because God probably thinks I have enough.

I don’t pray for happiness because I don’t think God cares about my happiness as much as my faithfulness.

I pray for wisdom against my foolishness. For healing for sick congregation members. For love and compassion when I’m angry and spiteful.

I pray for healing in a broken world. For peace in hostile world. For justice in an unjust world.

That’s what I pray for.

Wisdom. Healing. Peace. Faithfulness. Justice. Love. Compassion. When I pray for those things, those are the things I become.

Then I put those items on my To-Do list and roll up my sleeves and get to work.

God's Two Hands

There are days when I want to quit the church. Not just stop being a pastor, but walk away from the whole ecclesiastical enterprise. Maybe even walk away from God.

It’s not that I don’t believe in God. I don’t know if I could ever NOT believe in God. I happen to have the gene – or gift – of belief.

The days I feel like leaving the church are when I see non-believers doing good things for the world while we church people get mired in silly little fights about sex.

When there’s great creativity in the secular world while churches reward mediocrity.

When people takes a back seat to doctrine, status quo thinking passes as “tradition,” and anger at sin is valued more than the joy of forgiveness.

In other words, I feel like leaving when I know that I’ve left my best game in the locker room and I don’t know what to do about it.

When I experience more passion and joy from outside the church than from within it. And I don’t know why that is.

That doesn’t happen often, but it happens enough to stop me in my shoes.

A common conservative Christian polemic is that there can be no ethics without God. Such an idea is almost an article of faith in some evangelical communities. As if people need the threat of eternal punishment to keep from killing one another. As if religious people are free from murderous impulses. That without God, moral relativism (whatever that is) would create chaos in the streets. Ethics as carrot and stick. Actually, just a stick.

But what I think they’re saying is that, if people could be ethical without God then there’d be no need for God’s messengers – church people. Pastors. Ethical threats as job protection.

Also, they need an enemy. And a world that won’t bow at their feet will do just fine. Having an enemy gives purpose, identity.

But maybe their fear isn’t unfounded. After all, some of the most life-giving, ethical, (dare I say ‘faithful’) people I’ve met have been non-believers.

People who wouldn’t be caught one city block from a church, but have a better sense of God’s kingdom of life and grace than some of those who fill our Sunday morning pews.

People who seem to be better instruments of God’s love and mercy than those who wear fancy robes, dog collars, and profess to be God’s mouthpiece.

Some preachers, even preachers I deeply admire claim that the church is God’s Plan A for the world’s salvation. And God has no Plan B. We’re it. We’re God’s hands and voice in the world. God has no other implement in the world other than that which is called The Church.

I used to believe that. I don’t anymore.

I don’t believe that because I take the scriptures too seriously to think that God can only use the covenant people to do God’s heavy lifting.

The Magi (three wise men) sought after the Christ Child, recognized him as the Messiah, but Matthew gave no evidence of them becoming Christian, or even Jewish. There’s no evidence that they gave up their pagan religion. But they’re a part of God’s salvation story nonetheless.

Jesus was amazed at Roman Centurion’s faith, but there’s no evidence that he abandoned his Roman Caesar cult, got baptized, deserted the Roman army to follow the poor Messiah from Nazareth.

Also, Jesus healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter because of her faith. She was definitely outside of the covenant. That’s why he was able to insult her sick daughter (some suggest that Jesus even made a racial slur) and no one batted an eye. But God was able to use her as a witness to God’s kingdom of healing.

And people - non-believers - are all over the world living out Matthew 25, while some Christians are more concerned with tax cuts for the rich.

I think God is more interested in feeding hungry children, visiting sick people, and teaching prisoners how to read, then whether capital gains should be cut by 5 per cent.

Martin Luther talked about the church being God’s right hand and the world being God’s left hand. So, I’m in good company in thinking that God doesn’t heal the world with one hand tied behind the back. God is renewing the world with AND without the church.

So where does that leave us as church people?

I think that leaves us with a challenge to be the church the best way we know how. I think it means that God wants us to learn from the good, life-giving, things that non-believers do. This means that, even though we’ve been named and claimed as God’s people through our baptism, the world can still bear witness to God’s activity in this big, beautiful planet.

Maybe it means that church folks don’t have a corner on love and faithfulness. And that’s okay. We don’t go to church, pray, worship, study, and work hard for Christ’s church because we’re better than anyone else. We’re church people because that’s who God wants us to be. God put us here to remind the world who God is. And that prayer and work, love and action are two sides of the same penny.

I think it means that God needs two hands to remold the world into what God wants it to be. I’m part of God’s right hand (the thumb?) doing my small part for the kingdom.

That’s why I’m still a pastor. That’s why I haven’t walked away.

NB: Updated for typos and clarity.