Sunday, June 14, 2015

June 14, 2015 - Seeing as God Sees

A young shepherd boy anointed king, old creations become new, and a mustard seed grown into an enormous bush. Today's readings are all about how God does not see things the way do - as our reading from 1 Samuel says, "the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." And from our second reading, from 2 Corinthians, we hear "We walk by faith, not by sight. From now on then we regard no one from a human point of view. .. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away." And in our gospel reading from Mark, we have the image of the mustard seed, a teeny-tiny seed the size of the tip of a pencil, growing to be bigger than we can possibly imagine. Today our message is that we see only a small part of God's creation, while God sees so much more of it than we could ever hope to.
I say this, and you’re thinking, yes, of course. We could never see as much as God sees. This is not a new concept to us. But today I want to help us to think about this more deeply. What does it mean to say that God sees the world more fully than we do? In particular, what does it mean to say that God sees people more fully than we do? How is this Good News for us?
Often, when we say that God sees us, we mean that God sees all of the secret and sinful things we do. When I was little, I used to think that God was watching me all the time. Which is probably normal, but six year olds are not always the most rational of people, and for some reason I was convinced that God could see me through my watch. So, when I wanted to play with something that belonged to my sister that I wasn't supposed to touch, I would take off my watch and hide it in a drawer. God couldn't see me then, right?
We have this idea that God watches us, and sees in our hearts, in order to catch us doing something wrong. Kind of like Santa Claus - watching in order to put us on the naughty list. Who remembers hearing in confirmation class and Sunday school that God will know if you've broken any of the commandments because God knows everything? Who remembers getting the impression in Sunday School that God sees the evil thoughts of your hearts and will judge you when it's time? We never imagine that God is watching us in order to catch us doing something good, or that God’s judgement is something to look forward to because we’ll get a ruling in our favour. God watches us kind of like Revenue Canada or the IRS - to see if we’re cheating - not to offer us a refund we forgot to calculate. 
This is a problem for a lot of reasons, but what concerns me today is that this idea that God sees us with eyes of judgement is so pervasive and so embedded in our religious psyche that it affects how we see ourselves and how we see others. This understanding that God is watching us in order to catch our failures and shortcomings becomes the way in which we look at others and ourselves. Seeking to live up to what we imagine God’s expectations are for us, we look at others and we look at ourselves with the same judgement with which we imagine God is looking at us. Which means that we spend an awful lot of time looking at people's failures and weaknesses and faults and sins - and our own, too, and passing judgement. We watch the driver who cuts us off at the exit ramp and judge him for not caring about the safety of people around him. We watch the overweight woman who can barely walk down the street carrying an extra-large soft-drink and judge her for not having self-discipline and being lazy. We watch the misbehaving boy in the store (and his parents) and judge them for being self-involved and disrespectful. We watch the business woman with no children and judge her for putting work above family. We watch the young people who don’t come to church on Sunday morning and judge them for leaving God out of their lives. We watch and judge ourselves. Every mis-step, every bad decision, every ungrateful thought in our hearts - we see and judge it all. 
We look at others and ourselves under a harsh light. And we see what is really there - our failures and weaknesses and sins. But God does not look at creation in this way. God does not look at us only under this light. God does not look at only the sin in the world, and in us. This idea we have that God watches us in order to condemn us is not the whole picture, or even most of the picture. God takes a much broader view and God sees more than we see ourselves. God sees *everything.*
For instance: 
  • We see an impatient driver who didn’t signal and cut us off. God sees a beloved child who is a single parent trying to get work on time after cleaning up his son’s vomit from the floor. A son who is frantic that he might lose his job for being late *again* and that his family will be evicted for being behind on rent and end up in a shelter.
  • We see a morbidly overweight woman slowly crossing the street in front of us with a 7-11 extra-large Slurpee cup in her hands. God sees a beloved daughter who grew up in a house so poor she cried herself to sleep every night. A daughter who now eats whatever she wants to prove to herself that she and her children will never live through the same food-insecurity she did.
  • We see an unruly 7-yr-old who ends up in the principal’s office every day because he can’t sit still in class and is constantly mouthing off to the teacher. God sees a dear child who goes to school without breakfast because his parents don’t get it ready for him and who will be beaten - again - when he gets home from school. A child for whom school is the only safe place to work out the anger and frustration that his parents don’t love him.
  • We see a high-powered business executive in her fancy suits and shoes who has chosen a career over family and children. God sees a beloved daughter who was sexually abused by her parents since the age of five and over-achieves so that no one will ever see the scared little girl inside. A daughter who has sworn never to repeat the sins of her parents.
  • We see a young man with his smartphone and his cute dog who would rather have Sunday morning brunch with his friends than come to worship. God sees a beloved son trying to get over the pain of being rejected by Christians and a church who told him that he was better off dead than marrying the love of his life who also happens to be a man.  
  • We look in the mirror and we see our flaws and our fat, our wrinkles and our regret, our failures, our shortcomings, our sins, our things done and left undone. God looks at us and God sees beloved children who are struggling through overwhelming pain and loss, who yet manifest moments of grace and kindness. God sees us as kind and caring and strong and wise and beautiful. Not because God is blind to our sins, but because God sees more than just that. God sees everything. 

God see us differently than we see ourselves because God has compassion for us - a word which means passion or suffering-with - because, through Christ, God knows what it is to be human. God knows the pain of this life, and God knows that we get through it the best that we can. This is why the Incarnation is so important for us, actually. In Christ, God took on humanity and experienced human existence. This means that God took on the suffering and the passion that we live through on a daily basis. Through Christ, God came to know personally and bodily what it means to suffer - what it means that the decisions and choices we make to get through our lives are affected by the decisions and choices others have made for us. God sees in your hearts and God sees the suffering that shapes who you are. God sees the stories behind your sin, and the context behind your failures, and the sacrifices behind your success, and God sees how sometimes, what others judge as sin is really the only way we know how to survive what has been done to us. God does not watch you solely in order to judge you - God also watches you in order to have compassion. In order to show you love. God watches you because God doesn’t see the little mustard seed - God sees a giant shrub that has survived drought and sun and now offers shelter to others.

“The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." The prophet Samuel was right. God sees your heart, and God has compassion on you. And, in turn, God enjoins you to see the heart of others. For "We walk by faith, not by sight. From now on then we regard no one from a human point of view.” We are called to regard everyone from God’s point of view. We are called to see others - *and ourselves* - not with eyes of judgement and condemnation, but with eyes of compassion and love. When you see someone, and judge them, take a moment and see them as God sees them. See their suffering and their fears and have compassion. When you look in the mirror and judge yourself, take a moment and see yourself as God sees you. See your own suffering and fears, and have compassion on yourself. See others, and see yourself, as God sees you - one of God’s own dearly beloved children, in need of care and compassion, and do for others what God, though Christ, does for you, offer compassion and love and the blessing of forgiveness. Thanks be to God. Amen.

June 7, 2015 - Free Will

Have you ever walked into a grocery store to pick up something and been overwhelmed by the choices in front of you? Like laundry detergent. Now you probably know exactly the brand you like, and the precise type that you want, but if you've ever had to make a new choice - because your brand was out, for instance - it is overwhelming! Do you want liquid or powder? Do you want high efficiency or regular? Do you want it for cold water or hot water? How about colour? Is it for brights? Or whites? Or darks? Bleach-free? Bleach-alternative? And how about fragrance? Do you want unscented? Or do you want sporty scent? Or flowery scent? Do you want fabric softener added? Or do you want the kind that is safe for the environment - with no phosphates? Or the kind that comes in the environmentally friendly packaging? Do you want the refillable kind? Or the kind where you add water? The wall of choices are endless. And the irony is that in our culture of independence, where we value having the freedom to make whatever choice we want, having so many choices can be exhausting. We want to make the *best* choice, but deciding which is *best* can be too much. There is a phrase, "the tyranny of choice," which means that too many choices can enslave us, this is most clear in stores. And sociologists have studied this, and concluded that whether you're buying laundry detergent, or peanut butter, or shampoo, the sheer number of choices us can cause consumer anxiety. Too much choice can be a bad thing - admittedly, a problem that exists only for us in the overabundant first world.

So what are we to do when the choice isn't about something we find in a grocery store, but about how we are supposed to live our lives? How do we choose how we are going to spend our days? As Christians, we want to make choices that reflect our commitment to Christ. We want to live lives that respond to Jesus' proclamation that whoever does the will of God is his brother and his sister. We want to avoid the fate of the Israelites who chose a king against God's will, and ultimately ended up with Solomon, who enslaved most of the population, as Samuel warned he would, in order to build his temples and palaces and compete on the international scene. We want to make the right choices for our lives, so that God will be happy with us and so that we will be deserving of the title, "Christian."

For those who take these choices seriously, this is really challenging. How do we follow God's will? What *is* God's will for us? Unfortunately, most of us don't have a prophet like Samuel in our lives, who will directly tell us what God wants us to do. God leaves us to figure it out on our own. God gives us this free choice because God wants to be in relationship with people, and not with slaves. Just as we gave our children more choices as they got older, even the choice to make the wrong decision and learn from it, so that they might grow into responsible adults, God also gives us the freedom to choose what to do with our lives. God is not interested in being worshipped by automatons or robots, God created us in God's image - with freedom - so that as free people we might worship God. When God left Adam and Eve in the garden with the forbidden tree wasn’t a trap. It was God allowing them to make decisions and learn from them and grow. God gives us freedom to choose whether and how we will follow God. And, since you are all here this morning, I’m guessing that you have chosen to do what God wills - "thy will be done on earth as in heaven" - and so the question is, What is God's will?

Martin Luther struggled with this question. He likely suffered from depression and anxiety, and so his struggles were more acute than most people, but he was incredibly torn about what God's will for him was. In the beginning, he thought God’s will was that he honour his father and mother - the fourth commandment - and so he went to school to become a lawyer. But that did not make him feel closer to God. So he become a monk, thinking that would make God happy. But even that was a problem, as we know, and he began to think that God was not happy with that either. Luther spent his early life struggling to make choices that would make God happy. And Luther thought, early on, that what would make God happy would be Luther doing God's will.

But Luther came to realize that he was terribly mistaken about what he thought would make God happy. Because what he realized is that nothing that we do - no choice that we make - will make God happy with us. Not because God is unhappy with us, but because God is *already* happy with us. Because God made a covenant with us, to be our God forever, and through the death of Christ on the cross, God is already happy with us. We can't make God happy through our choices because God is already happy. We can't make God more pleased with us because God is already pleased. Doing God's will, as Luther discovered, is not about making the best choices so that God will accept us. We are already accepted. Doing God's will is simply about responding to this acceptance. We do God's will because we want to show that we are happy to be in the relationship that God already as with us. We do God's will out of thanksgiving for God's acceptance of us, and because we want to follow Jesus. Not because we have to, but because we want to.

Luther described this as the freedom of a Christian. Through Christ, we are freed from living so that we might be saved - because we already are. And we are free to live however we want. Nobody can tell us what we are *supposed* to do. Luther described this by saying that we are "Lords of all." We are the kings and queens of our own lives. We are free to spend our days however we want. God's will is that we make our own choices. We can, if we choose, make the choices all about us. 

But, as you have probably experienced by now, and as Luther also knew, living for ourselves isn't particularly rewarding. Making only ourselves happy leaves us feeling somewhat empty. And that is because God created humans to be in relationship with one another, and being in relationship means helping our fellow humans. God's will for us, as it turns out, is that we choose to love our neighbours as ourselves. God's will is that we choose to share what we have with those who have less - whether that is sharing our food, or shelter, our clothing, and even our love. Luther described this as being a servant to all. We are lords of all, and servants to all. This is what it means to be a Christian. That we are free to choose how we live our lives, and that we are most fulfilled when we are servants to others.  

Which brings us back to the tyranny of choice. We are servants who have chosen this work, and not slaves who are forced to do it, and so we are free to choose how we want to serve. But with so many choices as to how to serve our neighbour, because there are so many in need, how do we know which is the best choice? Do we serve those across the street from us? Do we serve those across the world? Do we serve our friends, or do we serve complete strangers? Do we serve with our time? Or with our money? Do we serve other Christians? Or do we serve non-Christians? Which is the best choice?

Well, we should know by now that there is no "best" choice. Or, rather, that they are all "best" choices. We are free to make whatever choice we want - we are free to serve whomever we choose, in whatever manner we choose. But here is something to think about: we serve out of thankfulness for what God has done for us through Christ. We serve because we have *chosen* to serve. And this thankfulness and choice means that our service to others should bring joy and pleasure and be carried out with eagerness. Serving others is not meant to bring suffering and pain and misery. While it is the case that serving might bring physical pain - if we choose to discipline our bodies through fasting or physical labour for others - it should never bring spiritual pain. Our spirits should never suffer as we carry out God's will. If you are serving others, and it is making you miserable or resentful or driving you away from God, choose something else. God has given you the freedom to choose how you will serve.

Luther was very emphatic about that, actually. Luther was quite keen to convey that Christian service to others is not meant to destroy us. He actually said that part of serving others is taking care of our own health. While of course we want to discipline our body so that it follows our spirit in serving others, Luther said, "It is the part of a Christian to take care of his or her own body for the very purpose that, by its soundness and well-being, he or she may be enabled to labour ... for the aid of those who are in want, that thus the stronger member may serve the weaker member, and we may be children of God, thoughtful and busy one for another, bearing one another's burdens." It's like when you're on a plane, and the flight attendant tells you that you have to put your own oxygen mask before helping others. How much help can you be to others if you pass out from lack of oxygen before you get to them? How much service can you do as a Christian if you neglect your own needs and end up needing the help of others, rather than helping them? As Christians, we are free to serve all, but first we must make sure that we are able to serve. Doing the will of God by serving others is meant to free us, not to burden us.

God's will is that we serve others, as a blessing to us and as a blessing to the world. God wants you to have a good life, and so God frees you from being obsessed with your own salvation, and frees you from being constantly anxious about how you will make God happy. The will of God is that you serve others however you want and however you are able, in whatever way you choose, in whatever way brings the most joy and makes you the most thankful to God for the opportunity. Just as it is with laundry detergent - whatever you choose will ultimately wash your clothes just fine - so it is with the Christian life. Whatever you choose to do will ultimately be just fine, because God has already chosen you. Thanks be to God. Amen.