Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pentecost 6 - The Holy Spirit Transforms the Church to Love

So this past week I was in Waterloo teaching at the Lutheran Seminary there about pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Or, in normal language, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the End Times. We looked at the history behind these ideas––how our beliefs about the Spirit, the Church, and the end developed throughout the Bible, and in the first few centuries as the church started, into the Middle ages, and through the Reformation. And we looked at how we are in the midst of a new wave of theology today in the twenty-first century.

I love teaching theology. I love helping students learn this new “language” for understanding how God works in the world, and I love hearing them share how they see God’s world with new eyes. I love watching them make the connections between what they learn in the classroom and what they experience in the real world. Teaching is, in fact, a kind of preaching. Helping students to see how much God loves them.

And I learn a tremendous amount from the students, as we work together to understand how the various theological concepts fit together. In the classroom, we create an exciting new vision of how God is working––one that both challenges the work of the church, and also gives it new life. In the classroom, students are able to be honest about the ways in which the church has profoundly disappointed and hurt them. But they also have a keen insight into the ways in which they see God acting to give the church new life, and make it once again a place of healing and hope.

So I thought that this morning I would share with you some of the insights from this past week, so that as a congregation we might engage in some of this theological conversation and participate in this transformation.

So, one of the things we talked a lot about is the ways in which the Holy Spirit works in the church. Specifically, the ways in which the Holy Spirits works to make the church like Christ. Because that’s the church’s job, right? The heart of the church’s mission––our reason for existing and our purpose in the world––is to be like Christ. We are Christocentric––centered on Christ.

Which is really significant for the church because one of the most important things about Christ is his love. Christ as Jesus of Nazareth loved everyone who came his way––he rebuked his disciples when they talked about sending down fire on the Samaritan villagers who would not receive them. Even though the Samaritans couldn’t accept Jesus’ focus on Jerusalem, he still loved them and felt connect to them. Christ’s healing of the ill was a manifestation of his love. His forgiveness of sins was an outpouring of his love. The sole commandment for him was, “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself.” Love. 
And at the heart of this love is what we call relationality. Relationships. Relating. Even now, the risen Christ continues to be in relationship with us. Christ continues to come to us, in various ways, but always in a living relationship built on God’s love for us. Love cannot exist without a relationship––even if that relationship is built on the fact that we all share the same air and the same oceans and see the same stars. And love deepens and is deepened by this relational existence we are in with one another, and with Christ. 

So Christ is love, and love is relational. To be like Christ is to be relational. And this is the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in the church. Constantly moving in our midst to make us relational in the way same way Christ is relational. Calling us to be like Christ.

Which means the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in our midst challenging us to welcome people. All people. And not just welcome them––get to know them. The Holy Spirit is constantly nudging us to get to know the people around us––those who walk in the front doors on Sunday morning and those who walk by the doors and never come in. Like Christ, who left Israel to go to Samaria to find people to meet and love, the Holy Spirit is moving us to follow in his footsteps and to seek God’s children outside of the church doors. When we leave these walls and go out and get to know those who have rejected the church, and those who have never been to church, and those who have been abandoned by church, in developing those relationships the Holy Spirit is most alive in our midst, and we are most transformed into Christ’s image.

The Holy Spirit is challenging us to have compassion for people. The word compassion means with-suffer, or suffer with. To be like Christ, we need to suffer with people. We are not called to agree with them, or to believe in what they do, but we are called to suffer with them. To weep when they weep, to rejoice when they rejoice. Christ was moved by those around him. In the Gospel of Matthew, he had compassion on the crowds (Matthew 9:36, 14:14), he had compassion on two blind men (Matthew 20:30-34), and in Luke he had compassion for the widow whose only son had died (Luke 7:13). We are likewise called have compassion - to be emotionally open to others - to suffer their pains.
Of course, when we do that, we will change. And that, too, is the nature of the church, and what the Holy Spirit is constantly moving within us to do. Change. The church is always changing because people are always changing. We, each of us, you and I, are always changing. As people come into our lives and we develop new relationships and we enter into their suffering, we change. When they leave, and those relationships end, we change again. And the church, which is a constant flow of people coming and going, is constantly changing. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit.

More importantly, the church is a place where we allow ourselves to be changed by those who come into our midst. Do you remember the story about Jesus encountering the Canaanite woman, when he told her that he had come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel and so it wasn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs (Matthew 15:24-28)? And then the woman said, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus was saying to her that he had come only for the salvation of Israel, meaning that he wasn’t going to heal her daughter, because she wasn’t one of the people of Israel. And the woman challenged him. The woman called him into a relationship with her, called his attention to the fact that even though he was a child and she was a dog, they were both a part of the same household. They had a relationship. And Jesus changed his mind. He changed his mission and healed her child because she established a relationship with him and in doing so, brought change into his life.

Or remember the parable that Jesus tells of the judge who rules against an old widow in the town, and day after day she goes to him and pleads with him to change his ruling, until finally he breaks down and does it (Luke 18:3-5)? One way of understanding this story is to understand that God is the judge, who changes because we appear day after day, pleading for mercy and a change of heart. This day-after-day appeal establishes a relationship that changes those in it. God’s mind––we might even say God’s heart––is changed by the constant presence of the widow. Christ’s heart is changed by the presence of the Canaanite woman. And the Holy Spirit, forming us to be like Christ, challenges us, too, to let our hearts be changed by those who come into our midst.

There is one more important way in which the Holy Spirit is moving the church to be more like Christ, and that is in sacrifice. The Holy Spirit moves among us, calling us to sacrifice ourselves––our comforts, our conveniences, even our very existence––so that others might have new life. This is what Christ did for us, after all. And when we call ourselves the body of Christ, which is what we call the church, we are saying that we, too, are willing to crucify our body––this body––the church––so that others might receive resurrection and new life.

Of course, none of this is easy. Or comfortable. Or even something we are naturally inclined to do. Just the opposite. We are inclined to isolate ourselves, to stick only to the people we know, to keep to the ways we know. We are inclined to things staying the same, to self-preservation. But the Holy Spirit does not call us to be a church so that we might be centered on ourselves. We are called to be a church that is centered on Christ. This is what the Holy Spirit has come to do. To move us to be centered on the words and deeds of Christ. To love our neighbour as ourself, to relate to our neighbour, so that we might come, every day, to be more like Christ and, through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, to make this world like the kingdom of God, where the first fruit of the Spirit is love, on earth as it is in heaven.

To be sure, the Holy Spirit does not force this love or this relationality on us. We are always free to walk away from relationships. We remain loved and claimed by God no matter what. But if we say Yes to the Spirit, if we invite the Holy Spirit to transform our lives––to transform the church––the Spirit will most certainly come. It will be messy. It will be uncomfortable. We will change. We will be broken open and given new life, over and over and over again.

And it will be exhilarating and life-giving. The Spirit will move us to say No to the things we used to say Yes to, and Yes to the things we used to say No to. But Christ will be in our midst, bringing us always deeper into relationship with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbours. And so may we say, Come, Holy Spirit. And may we say, Thanks be to God. Amen.

June 12 - Pentecost 4 - Abuse of Our Power Displeases the Lord

2 Samuel 11:26-12:15

“But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David.”

Just last week we were talking about David, and how he was God’s only chosen and anointed king, and how he’s a great role model of faith for us. And now this week we’re smack in the middle of the ugly story of King David and Bathsheba. We’re confronted with this man of power, and with the story of what happens when power is abused, and with the conviction that God holds us accountable for the ways in which we use, and abuse, our own power.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s review the story of David so far. So King David, the most powerful person in the land of Israel, the king who says go, and everyone goes, who says come, and everyone comes, who defeated Goliath and the Philistines and the Arameans and the Ammonites and all of the military enemies who wished to harm Israel, King David who’s already been told by God that his son will build a house for the Lord, King David who’s already married to Ahinoam, Abigail, Maachah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, and Michal (King Saul’s daughter), King David sees Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, bathing on her own rooftop. And King David summons her, sleeps with her, and sends her home again. And then he finds out she’s pregnant, and has her husband killed. At which point our story from this morning begins.

“The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” The question for us this morning is, What exactly was the thing that displeased the Lord? And, more to the point, are we in danger of doing that same thing, and likewise displeasing God? What was the thing? Was it the rape of Bathsheba? That’s what it’s called when you summon a woman and lay with her and don’t ask her if she’s actually interested. [If there’s one thing the recent news story of the Stanford swimmer who assaulted an unconscious woman has taught us, it’s that if you don’t hear Yes, then it’s rape. And I encourage you to go online and read the victim’s 12-page impact statement. It will rip your heart out, but statistics tell us that there are at least two women in your life who will know exactly how that poor woman feels.] So is this what displeased the Lord? Possibly, but not likely given the social status of women three thousand years ago.

Maybe something else displeased the Lord. Maybe it’s that David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, murdered. An innocent man, who had done nothing to King David but pledge his allegiance to him and defend him against all enemies, a principled man who wouldn’t enjoy life’s luxuries while his own men were out in the field. And King David had him murdered rather than confess his own sins. Maybe this is what displeased the Lord. If it is, most of us are probably safe, never having done that to anyone.

There’s a third possibility, though, and it’s related to the story Nathan tells David about the rich man who steals and cooks the poor man’s only lamb. Maybe what displeased the Lord is that King David used his power to take something from someone who had no power. You see, the lamb in Nathan’s story of David is meant to be Bathsheba. Wives in those days were property, as were children, at the same level as lambs. That’s why the Ten Commandments say, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house or wife or slaves or ox or donkeys.” Wives were in the same category as houses and animals - property. And King David took the property of Uriah––the rich man took the property of the poor man. And so it’s likely that this is what displeased the Lord. As the king, David should never have taken something from one of his subjects when he had plenty of his own. Uriah had only one wife, while David had seven at that point. If so, it should be easy for us to look at this story of King David and shake our heads over what he did, and move on. None of us has seven wives and stolen an eighth from someone else.

Except. Except that what I think God is actually upset about, because God has been upset about this before and since, what I think the “thing” that displeases the Lord really is, is the abuse of power. King David uses his position and his privilege as the king to make his own life better at the cost of someone else’s. It’s not like Bathsheba was single. It’s not like King David was using his power simply to get another wife. Aside from the whole polygamy issue, that would have been no problem. It’s that he used his power to get what he wanted by taking it from someone who couldn’t defend themself. This was not a win-win situation. This was definitely a win-lose situation. And King David used his power so that someone else would lose. And this was the “thing” that displeased the Lord.

This is a “thing” we all do. You see, each one of us here this morning has privilege and power. I know that it may not feel like it most of the time. But we do. If you are a parent, or a grandparent, if you are a teacher or a coach, if you have even been the boss of anyone, if you are on a committee of any kind, if you speak and others listen, like among your friends, then you have power. If you have ever bought anything in a store ever, you have power. Whether it’s hard power––like a police offer, or soft power––wielded through influence or the ability to purchase things, we all have some degree of power. 

But why do I say we abuse our power? Why do I say there are the things we do that displease the Lord? What do we do in our lives that help us win and others lose? Well, here are some examples: We buy bottled water. We use the power of our money to pay companies to steal fresh water from the backyard wells and aquifers of others who rely on that water for free, and to put it into bottles with caps so we can buy it. We take their water even though we have perfectly good water in our own taps. Like David. We abuse our power in the things we’ve done. And, in the things we’ve left undone. We abuse our power when we stay silent when we see others being treated unfairly. June is National Aboriginal month––we are people who directly benefit from Treaty 7, the treaty between the Crown and the Blackfoot, Stoney, and Tsuu T’ina peoples, signed in 1877 that allows us to use this land, and we abuse our power when we don’t fulfill the obligations of that treaty, which are to live on the land as guests, and not as owners. We abuse our power when we don’t say anything about our country’s history of systemic racism against indigenous peoples. We do very well living on this land, and they have suffered for it.

And we don’t want to hear this, but these are the things that displease the Lord. We, who have food in our fridge, and more than one pair of shoes, and a roof over our heads, we displease the Lord when we take out our wallet and pay $8 for that sequined shirt and don’t even question whether it was made by a 9-yr-old in India who hasn’t seen her mother in months. We displease the Lord when we buy that really cool smartphone and don’t even question whether it was made by a pregnant woman in China who will be told to have her baby on the manufacturing floor rather than get a day off - a whole day - to have her baby somewhere else. We displease the Lord when we crank up the air-conditioning on a really hot day and don’t even question whether the energy that powers it is contributing to the greenhouse gases that will ensure climate change in our grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s time. We displease the Lord when we enthusiastically share our hospitality with some strangers in our midst while ignoring others. So many of our “wins” in the world mean others lose. Our win on a good deal means someone else loses income. Our win of comfortable living means someone else is suffering from floods or heat waves related to climate change.

So what do we do? Well, here we can go back to following David’s example. Because David does three very important things. The first is that he actually listens to Nathan. David hears Nathan tell him that he’s abused his power. And this is not easy. David thinks he’s the good guy. And he is! He’s God’s anointed. But when you’re the good guy, and when you believe God has blessed you with many good things, and when you’ve lived your life defending others and trying your best to do the right thing, it’s very, very hard to hear that, despite your best intentions, you’ve done the wrong thing. That you have, in fact, compromised the very principles you built your life on. Nobody wants to hear that they’ve abused their power. When I tell you that you have privilege, and that you’ve abused it, do you like hearing that? No. But David listens to Nathan. He reclaims his integrity, and he listens to Nathan’s story of injustice, even though he himself is the perpetrator.

And then David admits his guilt. “I have sinned,” he says. This is, actually, what I would consider to be David’s greatest moment. Not his slaying of Goliath, not his defeat of the Ammonites, not the building up of the kingdom of Israel. His humble admission that, as great as he is, he was wrong. It takes a great and righteous man to admit that. And he did. Without defending or excusing himself. “I have sinned.”

And finally, David accepts the consequences of his actions. It’s interesting that we hear Nathan tell David that God has put away David’s sin, but there will still be a consequence. David is forgiven, but his son––who is his property, don’t forget––will die. In other words, David took Uriah’s property, and God will take David’s property. (And there are issues there, that we’re not going to get into today, about punitive justice instead of restorative justice, but we have to leave it for now.) The point is that forgiveness does not erase consequences. Forgiveness doesn’t wipe out all the hurt that’s been committed, and magically make the victims’ lives better. Forgiveness exists alongside of consequences, otherwise God’s forgiveness just re-traumatizes those who are the victims of the sin in the first place. Forgiveness without consequences lets us run around doing all kinds of I-win-you-lose things and then turn and say, “Oops, my bad,” and do it again. David is forgiven, but he still has consequences, and he accepts them.
Like David, we, too, can do each of these things. We can, after we’ve sinned, after we’ve abused our power (because we have and we will), reclaim our integrity by listening to those around us tell us about the harm we’ve done. Even though it’s hard, and even though we want to deny it or excuse it or justify it, we can listen. And then we can admit that we’re wrong. That we are guilty. That’s what we do when we have power and we’ve abused it. That’s how we show that we’re worthy of the power that’s been given to us. By admitting when we’ve used our power to benefit only ourselves. By confessing our guilt. By admitting that we have sinned.

And finally, we can, like David, accept the consequences of our actions. And this is hard because most of the time, the consequences fall on those we love, and not on ourselves. David’s consequence was that violence would now be part of the fabric of his house. Nathan says, “The sword shall never depart from your house. ... I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house.” His first son with Bathsheba died. His other son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, David’s daughter, Tamar. Another son, Absalom, killed Amnon and then was himself later killed by David’s soldiers. Four of David’s sons died for the death of Uriah the Hittite––four lambs to replace the one he took––exactly what David told Nathan would be just repayment in the story of the rich man and the poor man’s lamb. His daughter suffered the same treatment as Bathsheba. I’m sure that David would rather that he himself die than watch his children suffer the consequences of his abuse of power. But he faced it. The consequences of our abuses of power must be faced, too. Dysfunctional families. Sons who do awful things. Children who perpetuate the cycle of hurt. A global economy that serves us and puts just about everyone else into slavery. A climate that will be almost unlivable two generations from now. These are our consequences.

Now you may be wondering how this is Good News. How this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we proclaim. Well, for the times when we’ve been the victims of abuse, this is Good News because it means that God is on our side. God puts limits on human power, and God demands justice when those limits have been transgressed. In those times when you’ve been the victim of someone else’s abuse of power, knowing that God will not let that person get away with it is Good News.

And in times when we ourselves have been the perpetrators of abuse, this, too, is Good News. Because it means that God gives us a chance to make things right. To recognize the harms we’ve caused one another, to make amends for that behaviour and face the consequences, and in doing so, follow a new path. Or rather, return to the path that God originally set us on. A path where we use our power to defend the weak, to ensure equality, to lift up the voices of those who tell us that we’ve stolen their lambs, so that God’s kingdom might truly come, and God’s will might truly be done, on earth as in heaven. We have sinned, but God gives us the opportunity to do better. This is indeed Good News. Thanks be to God.

June 5, 2016 - Pentecost 3 - Angry Prayers Won't Keep God Away

1 Kings 17: 17-24
Psalm 30 
Luke 7:11-17

When calamity strikes, what do you pray? When something awful happens in your life, what is it that you say to God? Or wish you could say to God? When personal disaster strikes, do you pray what’s really in your heart or on your mind? Or do you pray what you think you’re supposed to pray?

Our Scripture readings for today give us a range of responses to God in “bad times.” In our reading from 1 Kings, we hear about what is probably every parent’s worst disaster––the death of a child. A young child, at that––still nursing. A child who becomes ill, probably from starvation, since the land where Elijah and this woman are has been struck with a three-year drought, and who has now “no breath left in him.” And the response of the mother is two-fold. First, she expresses anger towards the prophet of God. “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to cause the death of my son!” Her indirect words towards God are angry. She is, understandably, furious at God that such a horrible disaster has come upon her. Her response, to put it in today’s language, is to say to this representative of God standing in front of her, “What the ----! What did I ever to do you?!?!” Her response to calamity is to shout at God in outrage. That’s her prayer.

And Elijah, to his credit, seems to share that outrage. He takes the child and goes before God, and expresses his anger that God has not only brought drought to the land they’re in, but made this woman a widow, and now is making her a childless mother! His words to God are full of rebuke, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow?” In other words, “Are you really doing this? After everything else? How could you?” And then, apparently still angry, he tells God to restore the child to life. The English translation we have says that Elijah cried out, “Let this child’s life come into him again,” but the Hebrew is really more demanding. Elijah doesn’t say “let” his life be returned. Elijah says, “Return his life.” Elijah is so angry in this crisis that he makes demands of God. Not quite the prayer to God that we imagine is appropriate in times of crisis. But there it is.

And then there’s the prayer of Psalm 30. This psalm is attributed to King David, written by him after some kind of extreme illness. And the psalm tells us that during David’s illness, he cried, “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” In David’s time of calamity, in his moment of extreme crisis, he rebuked God. He basically said to God, “If I die, who’s left to worship you? If I die, who’s going to talk about how great you are?” David’s response was to argue with God, to tell God that what was happening was unfair, and not right. David uses irony to point to God’s hypocrisy: God is supposed to be the great protector of God’s people, but David––the king of God’s people––was about to be dead. How great could God really be? David, filled with a righteous indignation, holds up this logical inconsistency in God’s face, without apology.

Now, these responses of anger and demand and rebuke––these prayers of anger and demand and rebuke––don’t really strike us as the right things to be praying when things are going horribly sideways. At least, they’re certainly not what we were raised to believe is the proper way to talk to God, right? To yell at God? To make demands of God? To rebuke God? Surely this is not the way we pray to the one who made us, who redeemed us, who sanctifies us.

And yet... and yet the ones praying this way are people of God. Role models of faith, in fact. Elijah was a prophet so holy and so special in God’s eyes that not only did God use him to raise the dead child, but he was empowered to perform many miracles through Israel, and, at the end of his life, was carried up in a whirlwind into heaven, carried in a chariot of fire. Elijah, according to our biblical tradition, is the only prophet never to have died. Jesus himself looked to Elijah as the greatest of God’s prophets. And yet Elijah yelled at God, and made demands. And look at David. The only king actually chosen and anointed by God to rule over God’s people. David was so special in God’s eyes that his descendants––those who came from the house of David––would eventually bring forth Jesus of Nazareth. And yet David rebuked God. Elijah and David, people who embodied righteous faith in God, responded to crisis––prayer––by yelling at God, by rebuking God, and by making demands of God. 

And God did not punish them or strike them down. God did not abandon them, or turn away from them. In fact, God seems to have responded to their prayers in a positive and affirmative way. God brought new life to the widow’s son whom Elijah prayed over. God healed David from the illness that had struck him down. God did not bring death. God brought new life.

Which tells us something. And what I think it tells us is that God is committed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to us. God is committed to a relationship with us. God is listening to us. No matter what our prayers, God is listening. God may not like what we say, God may not agree with what we say, God may, in fact, think we are completely out-to-lunch, like when my children complain to me, “It’s not fair that we don’t get to stay up until midnight!” But God does not leave us. God may be somewhere we can’t see, “hidden” as Psalm 30 says, but God does not leave. God did not leave the widow in Elijah’s story, despite her anger. God did not leave her son. God did not leave Elijah, despite Elijah’s very bold demands. God did not leave David, despite the terrible things David did with Bathsheba and her husband. God did not abandon David. God stayed.

God stays. No matter what we pray in our most desperate moments. No matter whether we yell at God, or make demands of God, or even curse God. God continues to be with us. There is nothing we can do to drive God away. We simply don’t have that much power. The reality is that in our relationship with God, God is the one in charge, and God has chosen to stay, and to listen.
Incidentally, this is why we cling to our baptism so dearly. Baptism is, for Christians, that moment in time, a moment we can turn to, that actually happened, with water that actually exists, with words that we actually hear: “You are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Words that mean, You are now a child of God, adopted into the family of Christ, brought by the Holy Spirit into a relationship with God that can never be revoked because it is established by the power of God. For Christians, baptism is the promise and the assurance and the covenant, ratified by God, that God will always and forever be in relationship with us. No matter what. And so when we doubt that God is still with us, or doubt that God is listening to us, or when we think that perhaps we’ve driven God away with our prayers, or lack of them, the very fact that we were baptized stands as our reminder that we cannot possibly drive God away. We cannot undo our baptism. God does not allow it.

Elijah and David were in a covenant with God by different means. By Torah, rather than by baptism. But the effect is the same, and God’s commitment to them shows us that we can rely on the commitment made to us in baptism. God’s commitment to those with whom God is in relationship is to be with us. To help us. To never abandon us. 

In moments of crisis or calamity, in moments of despair and darkness, it is easy to lose hope––to think that we’ve been abandoned and we’re all alone, and this is it. And so we yell at God, we rebuke God, we make demands of God. And that’s okay. Even if we turn away from God altogether, that’s okay, too. Because God does not turn away from us. And that is our hope. That no matter what happens, no matter what we are going through, no matter what we lose, God stays with us, at our side, offering us the strength to get through whatever we are going through, and promising that at the end of it all, there will be new life. This is God’s promise to you, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Thanks be to God. Amen.