Sunday, August 30, 2015

August 30, 2015 - Context Is Everything

Earlier this week, I was sitting at my kitchen table working on my computer, reading an article on gun safety and thinking - unrelatedly - about when our landlord was going to fix our fridge. And from behind me, my husband, who was washing up the dishes, said, “Is this dishwasher safe?” And I thought, “That’s weird - there’s nothing wrong with the dishwasher.” And just as I was turning to ask him why he thought the dishwasher was unsafe, I noticed that he was holding up a plastic container. And in a flash, it hit me that he wasn’t asking if the dishwasher was safe, he was asking, “Is *this* dishwasher-safe?” And of course I started laughing, because only I could make a mistake like that.

What came to mind at that moment, and what is extremely important for understanding our readings today, is the saying, “Context is everything.” Context really is everything. The circumstances surrounding the saying or the writing of particular words is what gives them meaning. And unless we know what those circumstances are - unless we know the context of the person saying or writing them - we can’t properly interpret them. When we see an adult who is horribly afraid of dogs, do we think they are overreacting when a large dog passes them on the street? Or, do we know their context - that they were severely bitten as a child and needed surgery and stitches? When we see a teenage girl panhandling on the street, do we think, “Kids these days! Why doesn’t she go home and get a job?” Or, do we know her context - that even the streets are better than being sexually abused night after night by her father and his friends? When I say, “I can’t stand my kids anymore!” do I mean that I want Child Protective Services to come and take them away forever, or do I mean they’re fighting over who dropped the glitter glue on the carpet and it’s only two more days until school starts and boy, I could sure use that break and I love them dearly? Context is everything. Is this dishwasher safe? Or is *this* dishwasher-safe? 

In the church, we see the need to understand context particularly when it comes to trying to interpret God’s commands to us. Our reading from Deuteronomy tells us that God’s commands are not to be changed or added to or subtracted in any way, yet in the Gospel we seem to hear Jesus, an observant Jew, saying to put the Law aside. Our reading from James tells us that only those who *act* on their faith are true Christians while Luther’s interpretation of the letters of Paul tell us that we are to rely on *faith alone.* We can only hold these contradictions together if we know the context behind their writing, and each book in our Bible has different ones.

But, you might say, isn’t God the same from day to day, from beginning to end, from now until eternity? Doesn’t that mean that God’s Word is the same no matter what the context? Well, yes, God is the same, in that our God is the Creator, and sent the Redeemer, and comes to us in the Sanctifier. But, our God is also the living God who is in relationship with us. And, as we know from also being living beings who are in relationships, this means that God changes. Our relationships with people changes us. Have you ever had a relationship with someone that, over time, changed some deeply-held opinion you had on a particular issue, whether for good or for bad? We change because we are responsive to those around us, and they change because they are responsive to us. And it’s the same with the living God who is in relationship with us. We change because the Holy Spirit lives in us, and God, too, changes from being in relationship with us. If you believe that prayer has the power to change things, it’s because deep down you believe that God is responsive and God changes. God repented of making humans in Noah’s time, and then God repented of flooding the world. Jesus changed his mind about not sharing the Gospel with the Samaritan woman after she challenged him. There’s a long explanation for why Christians have come to believe that God doesn’t change, which I won’t get into now, but the Scriptures don’t reflect that belief. Scripture tells us that God is living, and shows us that God changes, and most importantly, emphasizes that God responds to our contexts.

Which is why God’s commands to us change. Jesus said it himself when asked about divorce. He said, “Moses gave you this command because of your hard hearts, but I tell you...” Jesus understood that God had given a law through Moses at one time, in one particular context, that God was changing through Jesus at another time, because of a different context. God is responsive to our context. God is responsive to God’s relationship with us.

Now, I wouldn’t blame you if you are starting to feel a bit unmoored and as if you are floating at sea without an anchor. How on earth are we supposed to understand what God wants for us if there is no standard, enduring truth to the text? Well, for one thing, I’m not saying that there is no truth. The enduring truth of our Scriptures is that, out of love, God created us, that Jesus Christ redeems us, and that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us. The truth is that, out of love, God comes to us in the water of baptism and claims us as God’s children, and God comes to us in the bread and wine of communion and strengthens us for our journey. It’s what we do after that that is up for interpretation. How we live our lives as Christians *after* that depends on our context.

And here’s the thing - each person’s context is different. Which means that the way each Christian lives out their life is different. God’s word to each Christian is different, and each Christian holds a different interpretation of what God’s commands are. They all fall within that truth I just mentioned, and that’s how we know if they’re God’s words or not, but apart from that, they’re all different. But one Christian’s interpretation of God’s commands is no less valid than another’s, because one Christian’s context, and their relationship with God, is no less valid than another’s. Are Catholics less valid Christians than we are because they don’t ordain women based on what they see in Scripture? Are we less valid Christians than they are because we do? Are Christians from the Reformed Church less Christian because they don’t allow infant baptism? Are Anglicans less Christian because they do? Pride Week is next week - am I less Christian because I’ve marched in the San Francisco Pride Parade as a clergy ally based on my interpretation of Scripture? Are my dear colleagues in Calgary less Christian because they won’t? We come to our understandings of how God commands us to live because of our contexts. A Catholic’s context is no less valid than a Lutheran’s is no less valid than a Reformed Church member’s is no less valid than an Anglican’s is no less valid than an LGBT ally is no less valid than someone who is not. How I interpret God’s word depends on my context - my past and present experiences - and so it will be different than yours. And your interpretation depends on your context - your past and present experiences -  and therefore it will be different from the person sitting next to you, and from the person sitting in front of you, and the person sitting behind you.

Because God is in relationship with each of us. God is in relationship with you, and the person next to you, and in front and behind. More than that, God *loves* you, and the person next to you, and in front and behind. In love, God considers your context when God sends the Holy Spirit to you, and when God tells you to do or not do certain things. In love, God responds to your needs as you are in your particular situation, differently from how God responds to others, because our God is a living God who is in relationship with God’s creation. God is in relationship with the person afraid of dogs, and with the teenage girl on the street, and with my children, and with me. God is in relationship with Catholics and Lutherans and Anabaptists and Anglicans. God is in relationship with LGBT allies and with those who aren’t. God is in relationship with millions of people and is responsive to millions of contexts, which means that God has millions of words for each of these individuals. Which means that within God’s very large community, there are millions of interpretations of God’s word, and sometimes even contradictory ones, because people have very different, and sometimes even opposite contexts.

The Bible itself contains multiple interpretations of God’s word, which is why it is such a source of strength and insight to so many who don’t share the same experiences in life. The Bible says that God is a judge. It also says that God is merciful. The Bible says that God is a shepherd. It also says that God is a mother hen. The Bible mostly calls God “He,” but there are a few places here and there where God is called “She.” (Yeah.)  The Bible says that the guilty will be condemned. The Bible says that the guilty will be forgiven. The Bible says that Christians should follow Jewish law. The Bible says that Christians should not. Context is everything. The Bible says that Christians should follow Jewish Law because that portion was written at a time when Christians were trying to remain in fellowship with the Jewish community. The Bible says that Christians should not because that portion was written at a time when Christians were trying to differentiate themselves from the Jewish community. The Bible says that Christians shouldn’t eat meat from idol worship. The Bible says that it doesn’t matter, go ahead if you want to. And that’s in the same passage! Context is everything.

Now I understand if you might be feeling that this is a bit too much ambiguity. Am I talking about a safe dishwasher, or am I talking about whether something is safe for the dishwasher? It’s okay, though, to be unsure. Our God is big enough and deep enough and strong enough and loving enough to hold all of those millions of interpretations at the same time, because God loves each of us at the same time. God’s word to each one of you is different, but God holds the community together in love, and God’s love is, above all, what we cling to. The love shown to us in Christ Jesus, a love that goes deeper than interpretation and deeper than context, a love that created us, redeems us, and sanctifies us. Context *is* everything, and our God is even more than that. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

August 23, 2015 - Don't Grow. Deepen.

The Gospel of Matthew (not the Gospel we heard from today) ends with the famous words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations....” These words have been at the heart of how we understand ourselves as a church, and have inspired centuries of mission work and evangelization. They are the basis for just about every single church program, every single church report, and every single church mission statement. This idea that Jesus commands us to go out and grow the church dominates everything we do. And over the centuries, we have developed this idea that making disciples means gaining members. We look at churches and we judge their success, or their failure, by whether or not they appear to be following this command. We look at churches and assess whether they are true disciples by how many members they have. We probably know the names of churches like the Crystal Cathedral, or Willow Creek or Saddleback - we know about the mega-churches of the late 1990s, churches that stand as icons for church success, and that have inspired countless membership drives and outreach programs. We think of these churches, and we envy their success. We don’t grow in the numbers that they do, we don’t make disciples with the sheer volume that they do. We don’t seem to be quite the Christians that they are.

But we try. Boy, do we try. At National Conventions, and Synod Assemblies, and Congregational Annual meetings, we try. We receive reports on how many members we’ve gained, or lost, we gather up information about much money has brought in, or spent. In our attempt to make disciples, we look at Jesus’ command through numbers, so that we can get a handle on how well we’re doing. In sociology research, you can either do qualitative research, which means gathering the stories of people and doing interviews to gather information, or you can do quantitative research, which means collecting data like demographic information or income, information that can be counted. And when we get together as a church to see how we’re doing, we look for quantitative information. We want numbers. We try to figure out whether we’re growing in faith, whether we’re growing in love, and whether we’re growing in service by the numbers. By how many bodies are sitting in the pews and attending church programs. The number of bodies tells us whether we are doing a good job being Christ’s disciples.

And this is all fine, until we hear this morning’s Gospel reading. And in the Gospel of John, all of a sudden we run into something very different. Jesus says a bunch of icky stuff about flesh and blood and his body and eating and drinking, and then Jesus says something so scandalous and offensive that his followers turn away from him. Now, we’ve heard this so often that we’re kind of used to it, but the word that Jesus uses in, “Does it offend you?” means something so unbelievably contrary and repugnant that his listeners are scandalized - horrified, appalled, disgusted. But what is this scandalous thing that Jesus is saying? Well, in the original context, the scandal is the idea that people should eat flesh and drink blood. Blood is meant only for God - that’s why in Solomon’s time, they sacrificed hundreds of animal to consecrate the altar. And even today, we still hold blood to be sacred. So there’s the scandal of that. But what I really want to look at is the scandal for today. What could Jesus possibly say that is so scandalous to us today? What could Jesus possibly say that would turn us - us - away?

Well, there’s one line in particular that jumps out at me. One line that I think has the power to scandalize us, and offend us, and even cause us to turn away, if we truly take it seriously. And I’m not just engaging in some preaching hyperbole and exaggeration here. I do really believe that if we take this scandalous saying of Jesus and seriously apply it to our own context, that we will find our church life - congregationally, and synodically, and nationally, and even globally - upended in unimaginable ways. 

Jesus says, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh is useless.” To understand why this line, of all of them, should scandalize us, we have to break it down a bit. When the Gospel of John talks about flesh, it’s talking about the body. So when Jesus says the flesh is useless, he’s saying that the body is useless. Which is a weird thing to say right after he tells his disciples that they will have to eat his flesh. But the Gospel of John was written during a time when the Christian community that gave birth to this Gospel was being persecuted, and being told that they weren’t true followers of God, and that they ought to be shunned by other members of their religious community because they were Christian. They were a minority, their influence and power on society and in culture was dwindling, and their numbers were dropping. Sound familiar? And so here we have Jesus, in the words of John, saying that the flesh, the body, is useless. In other words, we have John using Jesus to tell his listeners that bodies are not as important to what it means to be a follower of Jesus as we think. We have Jesus saying that, when it comes to being a disciple and when it comes to be a community of Christians, bodies are insignificant, irrelevant, unimportant. What is important, as we have heard over and over again this summer, is being one with Christ and the Father, which means loving our neighbour as Christ loves us. What is important is the Spirit. Being one with the Spirit, loving as the Spirit loves us, and living as the Spirit inspires us to live. The Spirit gives life; the flesh is useless. 

So what is so scandalous and offensive about this? Well, in the Gospel of John we hear a message that runs very contrary to what we hear in the Gospel of Matthew. (And, by the way, as an aside, this diversity of voices, and even opposing presentations of who Jesus is, is what makes the New Testament such a gift to us.) But in any case, we hear a very contrary message to Matthew. Matthew tells us to go out and make disciples, to grow, to gain more bodies. And John tells us not to. John tells us that bodies are useless. John tells us that we need to stop trying to be get more bodies, and to stop trying to be the majority. John tells us to accept our status as a minority group of followers, and to stop trying to go out and gain converts. When the group of disciples turns away, Jesus doesn’t even try to get them back. The flesh is useless.

So, at the risk of saying something offensive, I believe that this is what God is saying to the church today. In this congregation, and in this Synod, and in the National Church, I believe this is one of God’s messages to us today. That we are to turn away from the Gospel of Matthew and turn toward the Gospel of John. That we are to turn away from the flesh, and turn toward the Spirit.
Like Jesus, I know that this saying might be too hard for some people. It is a radical shift in how we understand our role as Christians in the church. It is a radical, basically 180-degree turn from what we have understood the role of church in society to be. That we should stop putting our efforts into growing the church. But I say this because I believe that it is Good News. I believe that is is the Gospel of Christ. I say this because I believe that history has shown us that Christians follow Christ much much better when we are a minority. We follow Christ better when we rely solely on Christ for our survival, and not on the best programs, or the best seminars, or the best Alpha courses. We follow Christ when we stop trying to get new members and when we focus our efforts on trying to be better Christians ourselves. I will be honest - I haven’t always believed this. I have, for most of my pastoral ministry, been a follower of Matthew’s interpretation that a good Christian congregation is supposed to grow by gaining more people. And I have looked into Alpha classes, and Invite a Friend to Church Sundays, and evangelizing in the community. I believed that more numbers meant God was blessing the church, and that fewer or declining numbers were a bad thing. But I no longer believe this to be true, because I’ve seen what happens when the church goes out and makes numbers and bodies a priority. I’ve seen that it doesn’t work and that we lose our way. Sure, there are bumps in numbers, but those numbers eventually decline. The Crystal Cathedral has closed. Willow Creek and Saddleback are declining. Some people may say that this is just a sign of the times, but I believe that, as Jesus says, “No one can come to me but through the Father,” and that smaller numbers means that God is calling us to look at discipleship in a new way.

So what is this new way? In John, Jesus tells us that the Spirit gives life where the flesh is useless. So what is this new life that the Spirit is trying to give us? I believe that, instead of growing, God is calling us to deepen. Instead of growing in faith, God is calling us to deepen in faith. Instead of growing in love, God is calling us to deepen in love. Instead of growing in service, God is calling us to deepen in service. Deepening means developing spiritual maturity, and stronger faith, and more sacrificial service. Deepening in the Spirit means becoming more vulnerable to the world by giving up on numbers to protect us. It means turning to God and trusting God to hold us, rather than relying on the money we get every Sunday, or on the numbers of people who are sitting in the pews, or on the numbers of kids in Sunday School or Confirmation. Deepening in the Spirit means actually rejecting any attempts to deliberately gain new bodies; it means turning away from old-fashioned evangelizing programs in order to focus on simply loving others, and being vulnerable to strangers, and serving those in need, regardless of whether they are or become Christians. Did you get that? Even our service to others is to be done out of love, and regardless of whether those we are serving become Christian or not. Our goal as followers of Christ, as people who want to be one with Christ, is not to make disciples but to give others life.

Is this scandalous to you? Does this offend you? If I have spoken clearly enough, it should. The idea that we should stop trying to gain new members, that we should actually reject attempts to gain new members, is scandalous. But the truth is, what have these attempts gotten us? Has trying to grow strengthened our faith? Has trying to get more members made us better servants of Christ? Has being concerned about numbers - of either people or of money - made us love God’s people more? Despite all our attempts to think otherwise, new members do not make us a more faithful Christian community. The flesh is useless.

The Spirit gives life. As we begin again this fall the work of discerning where God is calling St. John next, and even where God is calling this Synod, and where God is calling the ELCIC, let us turn away from this obsession with flesh and bodies and numbers, and turn instead to the Spirit. Let us focus our efforts instead on deepening in faith, deepening in love, and deepening in service. In these things God will make us more faithful disciples of Christ, and will give us life, which is the life of Christ. We may be scandalized and it may be easier to go away, but God gives us the strength of Peter to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Fear and Love

            If I asked you to make a list of the top ten things you fear, what would be on that list? Once we get past the fear of spiders, or dogs, or the fear of enclosed spaces, or fear of heights, what would be there? Fear of dying? Or maybe fear of dying painfully? Fear of aging? Of getting dementia? Of losing mobility? Anybody fear getting cancer? Or fear their cancer coming back? Anybody fear being poor? Or fear that you will outlive your money? What do you fear?
            Maybe you have bigger fears. Not for yourself, but for the coming generations. For myself, I'm particularly afraid that we're going to hit another economic collapse like the one in 2007-2008, and that this time it's going to be more severe and be permanent. I fear I'm not going to be able to help my children out the way my parents helped me. I fear the economic collapse will lead to the underfunding and eventual failure of municipal infrastructures, like electricity, and water utilities, like is already happening in Detroit, where people live in houses without water or power.
            I fear that we’re living in a period of irreversible climate change, and that we’ve already passed the moment of no return, and that the next generation will never visit cities like San Francisco, or Seattle, or Vancouver, or Manhattan, because they’ll be underwater. I fear that the flooding in Calgary two years ago, and the flooding of New Orleans, and the droughts of California and Alberta, and the forest fires ravaging British Columbia and Alberta and Saskatchewan are not actually unique events, but are the beginning of a new normal.
            And I fear that these coming economic and climate disasters will lead to a worldwide food shortage, which in turn will lead to political collapse, like we've already seen in Egypt and the Arab Spring revolutions. I fear that the global network of food production that puts cheap food on our table - that gets us rice from Indonesia, grapes from Chile, tomatoes from Mexico, and fish from Taiwan - will collapse like a house of cards and that - in my lifetime - we will all be adhering to a local foods diet, not because we want to, but because we have to. And combine that with the coming climate change, and I fear the coming generations will be living lives similar to those during the Great Depression or to the peasants in the Middle Ages. These are the things I fear.
            Which, you know, doesn`t make me all that happy. Living with all this fear is not fun. Living with fear is not actually even really living. I`m sure you`ve experienced this – when you`re afraid of something – either something that`s happening at the moment or something that you are afraid of coming – you don`t really live. You exist – trapped in your fear, and unable to enjoy the life that you have. Fear takes away life – it takes away all that makes our lives worth living.
            And yet, with all of this, we have our Psalm reading today that says, “Fear the Lord, you his holy ones.” What on earth are we supposed to do with this? For one thing, who wants more things to fear? For another, this just brings us back to a theology of God as an impassive judge, sitting on high, ready to strike us down for the smallest infraction, ready to punish us for not being perfect. And that is not the God that we proclaim any longer. We proclaim a God who is among us, who lives with us and suffers what we suffer. Our theology tells us that God is forgiving, and loving, and a Creator who provides what we need. Our faith reassures us that God gives us strength in our weakness, and comfort in our affliction, and that God cares for us and loves us. So how are we to understand the psalmist’s exhortation to fear the Lord? At a time when we live in fear of so many things, are we also to fear the one God who can comfort us?
            I have a feeling that every generation feels that nobody else in history is living with the same fears that they are. My parents’ generation was afraid of nuclear war. Their parents were lived through two World Wars and were afraid of all the suffering that came with that. Before that, generations were afraid of plagues, and wars, and others have been afraid of deadly earthquakes, or volcanoes, or tsunami. Each of us thinks that we are living in a unique time, and that *we* are the ones who are really living in the end times. And I don’t say this to dismiss the current concerns of our age, because I think they are legitimate. Or to dismiss the concerns of previous generations as being overly dramatic and hysterical. Because whether there is cause for alarm or not, the feelings of fear that we experience are all legitimate feelings. I bring this up because I think that how our ancestors in the faith dealt with this fear can help us understand the psalmist’s command to fear the Lord.
            I’m thinking particularly of Martin Luther, of course. Luther, too, thought that he was living in the end times, and that the world was about to collapse. He experienced the German Peasants’ War, in which thousands of peasants burned and ravaged towns, and were in their turn slaughtered by the aristocracy. He experienced a plague that devastated Wittenberg. He believed that the Pope was literally the anti-Christ and he was living at the end of all ages. We might laugh at him now, but he truly thought it was the end.
            So what did Luther do with all this fear? Four years after the Peasants’ War and two years after the plague in Wittenberg, Luther published his Small Catechism. And in it, his explanations to the Ten Commandments, all of which start, “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” Luther, with all the things he had to fear, believed that, above all, at the heart of the Ten Commandments, was the command that we are to fear God. But why?
            The key is in the last three words of Luther’s explanation. “Above all things.” Another way to put this would be to say that we are to fear, love, and trust *only* God. In other words, the only thing in life that we should fear is God. Not climate change, or illness, or aging, or economic collapse. We should fear *only* God, because God is the only who can overcome the power of death with new life. Only God can see us through the devastation of memory loss, or cancer, or financial ruin. We may end up on the street, but even that dire condition cannot take away God’s love for us. We may be flooded out of our house, but this will not stop God from being with us. We may forget the faces of everyone we love, including our family, but that will not stop God from being with us and recognizing us as God’s own children. There is nothing to fear *but* God. So we are to fear *only* God.
            More than that, though, Luther says that we are to *trust* God. To fear and also to trust. Because the God we put our trust in is, actually, trustworthy. God does not let us down. What God provides for us is greater than anything we can fear.  God is faithful and steadfast and God’s love endures forever. It is *because* we trust God, and only God, that we need fear only God.   So why do we trust God? Most importantly, because our God is living and is the God of life. This is what our Gospel reading for today reminds us, and why it is such a good counterpoint to our Psalm reading. Our Gospel reading reminds us that our God is God of the living, who sent Jesus Christ to live among us, so that we might know this to be true. Jesus is the living bread, who gives us true life. The text says “eternal life,” but a more accurate translation would be one that says “full and true life.” The meaning of the entire passage is *not* that God gives us life in the days to come, after we’ve died, in a heavenly forever after kind of way. The meaning of the passage is about today. God gives us life *today.* In the midst of all our fears and concerns and anxieties, fears which trap us into thinking only about them, fears which strip away our enjoyment in life, God gives us life *today.* Not tomorrow, or in the next generation, but today.
            As Christians, we receive this life through the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of Communion. We receive *today* the life of Christ. This is not a life where we are trapped by our fear and anxiety. This is not a life that becomes overwhelmed by the reality of a dismal future. The life of Christ was one that, yes, lived in fearful times - there’s nothing quite so fear-inducing as living under occupation with the threat of having one’s capital city and everyone living there burned to the ground at any time. But the life of Christ is one that lived with that fear and also reached out to others in love. Christ, the Son of the Living God, lived so that others would come to know the love of God, which means he lived deeply into the lives of others, and loved who he saw.
            Because love is the only way to live with fear. Love for others, and for the world. Love for friends, and family, and strangers. We can only live with fear when we turn to our neighbours and focus on their needs and arrange our lives to help lessen their fears by walking with them and helping them - by loving them. We can only be freed from our fears when we do as Christ does, and live in the world with love as our main goal.

            Today is the day we live forever, meaning today is the day we have been given to live deeply and intensely into. Today is the day that we acknowledge, yes, there are things in this world that concern us, and that might possibly end us, but that will not stop us from living lives of love. Today is the day that we recognize our fear, and then live with it anyway, by living for others. We take the moment of today and live into it deeply, by loving those who are around us and with us in these moments. We live the life of Jesus Christ, which is to share God’s life and love with everyone, so they too may learn to trust God. And in this love we find that our fear of the world dissolves. Yes, the end of the world is coming. At some point. Either in our generation or the next or in a hundred generations. But in the meantime, we live in Christ’s love. We live in a love that sees other people, and brings them in, and holds them close, and stands with them in their fears. We live in fear, and we live more deeply in love, because we fear and trust *only* the living God who loves us forever and gives us life. Thanks be to God. Amen.