Category Archives: Theology & Culture

God is not fair

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, `You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, `You also go into the vineyard.’ 

Fairness.

We know all about what it means to be fair and what it means to be unfair. Whether it is being fair as a parent, or fair as a teacher or fair as an employer. We expect fairness from our political leaders, community organizations, public servants, the businesses we patronize and services we pay for. We want fairness from the place where we buy our milk and where we get heart surgery. And We complain about the lack of fairness whenever we see it… Fairness is an expectation that we try to hold our world to.

And yet, we know that being fair and even handed is as much art as it is science, and that fairness can be perceived very differently by two people. Just ask any siblings if parents are fair, or opposing hockey teams if the refs are fair, men and women working in the same fields if their pay is fair and we discover that fairness is very much about perception.

Jesus is talking about fairness today.

The topic has come up because Jesus has been teaching about the difficulty of the rich when it comes to entering the Kingdom of heaven, and Peter ( it is Peter a lot lately) wants to know what he and the other disciples will get – what is the reward – for giving up everything to follow Jesus.

So Jesus tells the disciples a parable. A landowner goes out throughout the day to hire workers for his vineyard. And every few hours he keeps hiring more… even hiring the last batch only an hour before the end of the workday. Yet, when it comes time to pay the workers, everyone is paid the same. One day’s wage.

Not exactly fair according to the definition.

And so naturally, when the workers who have worked since dawn receive the same pay as the ones who had worked only one hour, they grumble to the landowner. Should not they who worked the longest receive the most pay?

The landowner’s response to the grumbling workers sounds reasonable, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

But is it?

Well, not in the biblical world and nor in ours.

There are certain rules that we all play by in the world, and the long working labourers of the parable know this. And one of the most important rules is the rule of fairness: you get what you deserve. In fact, the biblical world was based on this idea. It wasn’t just about wages for labour.

The notion that you get what you deserve was everywhere. It was the basis for one’s social standing, it was the reason that some got sick and others didn’t, that some were inflicted with suffering and others good health. It was was some could keep and law and be righteous while others could not.

You got what you deserved in that world, and if you were punished or afflicted or poor it was because you were sinner. And if you were blessed, or healthy or rich, it was because you were a good person.

And so when this landowner asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” the answer is no. He is supposed to do what is fair, that is what the rules say, the rules that God gave to the people of Israel. Paying everyone the same is not fair, because people should get what they deserve. The labourers who worked longer should be paid more than the ones who came in at the end.

Now it is easy to think that we are more enlightened and know that things are more complicated. Because certainly we would never be so extreme as to blame the victims of violence or disease or suffering for what has been inflicted upon them, and surely we would never claim that wealth and success has been hard work when they have actually been because of luck and chance, and of course we would never feel entitled to more than we have received because we have judged those around us as undeserving.

In fact, our world is exactly like that biblical world that believes people get what they deserve.

We all too easily think that the workers who begin early in the morning are the hard working ones, rather than the lucky ones. We all to easily think the the workers who come at the end are the lazy ones, the death-bed converts who frittered the day away only to swoop in at the last minute to reap the reward.

We don’t generally see that there is a lot of good luck involved in being chosen first. And lot of bad luck involved in being chosen last or forgotten entirely.

We are much like the first workers. The first workers who thought they would receive more; but were paid the usual daily wage.

In fact, it isn’t until we are the ones waiting and passed over and wondering when our luck will change that we begin to see what might be really going on in this parable. It isn’t until we are the ones who are left idle in the marketplace… we are the ones who waiting in hospital for a diagnosis or treatment, we are the ones whose jobs have been cut, we are the ones who have not been invited to the party or left out by our community, we are the ones considered the death-bed converts that we begin to see.

God isn’t giving any of the workers what they deserve.

The landowner isn’t operating according to fairness.

The landowner is operating by unexpected goodness. Unexpected grace.

The landowner pays the workers and and pays them what they need. One day’s wage.

Just as God provided for the Israelites manna in the desert, God provided what they needed, enough for the day.

Just as Jesus taught the disciples to pray, Give us today our daily bread. Jesus taught them to pray for what they needed.

The labourers needed enough to buy food, to afford shelter, to provide for their families. A Denarii, the coin that represented day’s wage was not like our money. It was not meant to represent an amount of gold bullion, it was not symbolic of a measurement of value. A Denarii was symbolic of daily needs. It was supposed to be enough for anyone to live on, enough to buy food and shelter for one more day.

As the landowner goes back to marketplace again and again, hiring more workers for his vineyard he acts in manner that is completely outside of what it means to be fair.

He is acting based on what it means to be good. What it means to care, what it means to show mercy.

And when he comes at the end of the day, still finding workers he asks them, “Why are you standing here all day?” And they say to him, “Because no one has hired us”.

So the landowner does something that no one did in the biblical word. Something that no one does is our world because it is just not how the world works. The landowner does what is utterly unfair and unexpected. And not unexpected because it is surprising but because it is outside of expectation of what is normal.

The landowner says, “You also go into the vineyard.”

He sends the last and forgotten ones into his kingdom. He welcomes them and makes a place for them. He recognizes that what is good, even if it is not fair or expected, is to make sure that everyone is given what they need.

In a world that constantly tries to tell us that we should be paid what we deserve, it can be easy for us to buy into the same idea. It can be easy for church people like us to think that we deserve more, that we are the ones who have been working all day.

But God’s church operates outside of expectation, outside of what is fair.

Here, in God’s church, in God’s vineyard and Kingdom, the workers are given the usual daily wage. And not because our labour has earned it, but because it is what is Good and it is what we need.

And truly, as we gather week after week we should expect condemnation for our sins… but God gives unexpected forgiveness.

What should be fair is that the wages of our sin would be death… but God gives us the daily wage and the daily bread that is life.

What should be expected is we would be turned away by the stain of our sin… but God unexpectedly washes us in the waters of life.

What should the way things operate is that God’s grace and mercy cost more than we could ever earn… but because of God’s goodness and love, God gives us the grace and mercy that we need.

Our sense of fairness tells us we deserve more. And what is actually fair might mean we deserve much less than we have received.

Yet, God is not fair but God, and God gives us what we need.

Amen.

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Conflict Resolution: Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and Tax Collector.

Matthew 18:15-20

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector… (Read the whole passage)

Human beings are not good at conflict. In fact most of the time, we are quite bad at dealing with conflict in our lives. From arguments in the home to disagreements between nations, we often fall back on the same bad behaviours.

Conflict awakens that part of our brains that takes us from being rational, reasonable people to defensive and irrational reptilian like creatures. Our reptilian brain, the part which governs our fight, flight or freeze responses can take over when we enter into conflict… and fighting, running or hiding are not the ways to solve conflict, they are ways to escape danger like T-Rexes and sabre-tooth tigers.

So to help us with conflict, we have this handy passage from Matthew, a simple yet effective process that allows us to deal with and get through disagreements and conflict in our communities of faith. It is one that Christians have been using for a long time, one enshrined in our church constitution. And as far as conflict management goes, it is on point.

If someone wrongs you, take your concern to them directly. Or in other words, don’t talk about your problem with everyone but the person who has wronged you. Simple yet difficult, as we almost always would much rather gossip than face those who have wronged us directly.

This first step is the hardest, it is the step that actives our reptilian brain. We feel that addressing a perceived wrong is not likely to end in an apology, but for the wrongdoer to tell us that we are actually the ones who are wrong. An argument with a family member or friend feels like the danger posed by a sabre-tooth tiger to our reptilian brain.

And so to mitigate our reptilian defensiveness when two people simply cannot come to an understanding, we are to take 1 or 2 trustworthy persons with us. A neutral third party, who will  be witness to the conflict and someone who might gently bring objectivity to conflict. Someone to remind us that our reptilian brain might be overblowing things.

But then, if conflict cannot be resolved will one or two neutral witness, we are to bring the issue before the community. Let the whole body of our brothers and sisters in faith address the conflict. And usually the idea of having a fight out in the open is good perspective giver, a motivator to come to resolution rather than show the world the worst parts of ourselves. And yet, if even this kind of radical transparency cannot solve conflict, than Jesus says is one solution:

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.”

Over the years Christians have called this step by different names. Shunning, banishment, excommunication, being cut off. A drastic last step when relationships are broken by conflict.

A straightforward and clear process for conflict resolution.

And yet, this process demands more of us than we might think. It is simple, but not easy.

For the disciples hearing Jesus’ words today, this process was very different than the way their world worked. In their world, everyone knew their place. The authorities, those with power, those who were righteous… they knew that they controlled society. They knew that they were the judges of the world. They were ones who chose the winners and losers in any conflict.

And the ones on the bottom, the unclean, tax collectors, fishermen, gentiles, beggars, labourers, the sick and ill… they knew that they had no power, no one on their side. The outcomes of conflict was in the hands of those more powerful than they.

The disciples and others listening to Jesus, lived in a world so carefully categorized that you knew who you could talk to, who you could eat with, where you were allowed to sit in the synagogue, which door you could use when going to the temple and so on. This hierarchical world carefully laid out who had power and who didn’t. And Jesus’ followers didn’t. They were bottom dwellers, low on the social ladder.

And so this kind of process would have sounded great to Jesus’ followers. A process where they could be the ones with power, the ones who could judge the sins committed against them. It could turn their whole world upside down. Those in power could be thrown down to the bottom, those on the bottom could finally rise up and take control. The powerful are no longer the judges of all things. The authorities don’t get to decide who is right and who is wrong for everyone, rather those who have been sinned against, like those on the bottom… they can judge for themselves. They can judge sin directly.

Or at least, that is what is this iconic passage from Matthew 18 sounds like.

Until Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

For you see, there wasn’t a day that went by that the Pharisees and Scribes, the temple authorities and priests didn’t remind Jesus and his followers that they were spending time with the wrong crowd. Jesus liked to eat with tax collectors, unclean sinners who worked for the terrible Romans collecting their unclean money. Jesus liked to interact with Gentiles, unclean sinners who worshipped incorrectly, like the Canaanite woman who Jesus called a dog. Jesus like be around those on the bottom, people like fishermen, people like his disciples.

How easily has the church forgotten this. How quickly have we gone back to thinking that Gentiles and tax collectors are those we should shun and banish and excommunicate and cut off. How easy is it for us to think that when we cannot resolve conflicts we should just end the relationship and cut people out of our communities and our lives.

And if this passage from Matthew 18 were just a standalone piece of advice, it might sound like something from a self-help book. But it isn’t. It comes right after Jesus has been telling his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the one who is like a child, the least important of the world. That to be a stumbling block to the least of these little ones is to be avoided at all costs. That Jesus is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the one lost sheep.

And so when Jesus says let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector…

The Gentiles and tax collectors were the one that Jesus came to seek and find.

The ones like little children to whom the Kingdom belongs.

The little who believed in Christ and should not be caused to stumble.

The lost sheep whom the Shepherd searches out and rescues.

Gentiles and tax collectors are those that Jesus has come for.

Come for to show God’s love and mercy and grace.

Come for to eat with like beloved guests and equals.

Come for to heal and restore to wholeness.

Come for to bring God’s Kingdom near.

Gentiles and tax collectors are the lost and least that Jesus has come to minister to.

Jesus’ words on resolving conflict were not a way for his disciples to move from the bottom off their world to the top. And they are not a way for us to stand in judgment of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Rather, they are a reminder of whom God has come for, who God’s love and mercy and grace are given to. They are a reminder about how God sees us.

They are a reminder that for God, we are all Gentiles and tax collectors.

That in the confession and forgiveness we hear week after week, God seeks us out like the one lost sheep.

That in the Word of God spoken in our midst, God welcomes the little ones who stumble.

That in the bread and wine of Christ’s body, God makes us God’s children and gives us the Kingdom.

The word that Jesus gives us today is so much more than a simple process for conflict resolution. Jesus reminds the disciples and us just who we are. That even with the process for solving conflict we will not be able reconcile with our brothers and sisters on our own. But that we are all instead ones such as Gentiles and Tax collectors to God. And that when we would cut each other off from relationship, that Jesus has come instead to find and reconcile us.

Jesus has come to heal us and eat with us.

To show us God’s love and mercy and grace.

Amen.

Peter wanted a private club – Jesus gave us the Church

Matthew 16:13-20

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…(Read the whole passage)

Last week, I had a brush with fame. If you happened to be listening to the local Christian music station on Thursday after around 5pm, you would have heard me do a brief two part interview. Yes, I know, I know… for anyone that is wondering I will sign autographs in addition to shaking hands on the way of out church… and no, this hasn’t gone to my head.

In all seriousness, the reason that I was interviewed was for an article that I had written and that was published by Christian Week magazine…a locally founded but national/ecumenical publication in Canada.

The article was about something that I mentioned in my sermon last week, Why White Supremacy is a Sin. After the events of Charlottesville two weeks ago, the article was my attempt at articulating why the ideology White Supremacy is sinful.

At its foundation, Christian White Supremacy takes the idea that faith and church confer a special status and power to us to extreme ends. That being a follower of Jesus or a Christian makes a special group, a special in-crowd, that the church is only about who is on the inside, rather than reaching those outside. For White Supremacists, only white skinned people are those special ones.

Now, what does that have to do with the Jesus and Peter today?… well in a way, Jesus is naming that same attitude among the disciples – the idea that being a follower of Jesus confers special status and special power.

Jesus and the disciples are out in gentile lands again. Last week they were in the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus encountered and eventually healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter… but only after she convinced him that she, a gentile and a woman, was worthy of his compassion.

Today, Jesus has travelled inland to the region of Caesarea Philippi where he takes the opportunity to ask the disciples a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This gets a few different answers, mostly comparisons to the prophets of old. But Jesus isn’t satisfied and takes it a step further. “But who do you say that I am?”

When none of the other disciples have an answer, Simon offers a guess. “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” Not a dead prophet but son of the living God.

And for that Jesus gives Simon a new name – Peter. Peter which means rock, the rock on which Jesus will build his church, giving the church the power loose and bind sins.

That is a quite the journey from “Who do you say that I am?”

This story of this encounter between Jesus and his disciples that we hear today, is a passage we tend to place a lot of meaning on.

The Roman Catholic church reads this story as Jesus’ choosing Peter to be the first among the disciples… the first Bishop of the church, the Bishop’s office whose has become the office of Popes through the centuries. The Pope, they say, is the successor to Peter. The Papal symbol is two keys.

Others find in this passage an important question, one that is more relevant today than ever. Who do we say that Jesus is? Many church leaders today would contend that this question is at the core of what it means to follow Jesus and how we answer this question in a world of suffering, violence, hatred, division, conflict, war and death determines the character of our faith.

And perhaps for us here at Good Shepherd, our answer to the question of who Jesus is would impact significantly how we minister to the community around us.

But perhaps neither of these concerns are truly what this passage is about.

As usual, there seems to be something else going on.

And getting at that involves asking the question why.

Why does Jesus ask his disciples, far from home and in gentile territory who people say that he is. And why does Jesus give Simon a new name with new responsibilities.

On regular occasion, the disciples get caught up in the perks of being disciples, rather than the reality. They want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands. They want power to heal and power over demons. They get jealous of others who do works of power in Jesus’ name. They get impatient with people who come to Jesus for healing, much like the Canaanite woman last week.

And so when Jesus asks the disciples, who they think he is… it isn’t because Jesus is wondering what people think of him. It is because he wants the disciples to connect with reality.

They are followers of Jesus. Jesus who is the Messiah. Jesus who is then son of the Living God. The Messiah who has come to save the whole world, sent by the Living God, the God of all creation. The forgiveness that they proclaim is not a power they hold over others, but a responsibility they now carry. The New Life that they preach is not privilege bestowed to a few, but a gift given to all.

Like the disciples, the church, including us, has fallen into the same trap again and again. And while it isn’t usually as extreme or destructive as White Supremacy… it is something we struggle with.

For many churches and communities of faith in North America these days it has been the norm to see ourselves firstly as centres of community. Faith families who love and care for each other. Groups who exist for the benefit of our members. Clubs with special privileges.

And yes, in some ways those definitions do apply to us. But they do not define us. They are not the why. They are not our first and primary purpose for existing. The Church is not a community of the privileged, but a community of the burdened. A community given responsibility. A body tasked to preach and proclaim the story of the one whose name we bear – to tell the world about Christ.

When Jesus gives Simon a new name today… it is first a reminder of who Jesus is. In the Old Testament the only person who ever changed someone’s name was God.

When Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on whom he will build his church, it is a reminder that this community of faith is the Messiah’s. It is a community rooted in the forgiveness of sins for sinners, mercy for the suffering, and resurrection of the dead.

When Jesus tells Peter that he will be given the keys to kingdom and that what he binds on earth is bound in heaven, and what he looses on earth is loosed in heaven… it is a re-orientation of the privileged and self centred attitudes of the disciples.

The power to forgive, the power to grant mercy, the power of resurrection and new life… these are powers NOT to be used as Peter, the disciples and the church desires. But rather responsibilities and tasks to be undertaken. Forgiveness is not to withheld, but given. Mercy is not to be given with discretion but with wild abandon. And new life… well God’s answer to all death is resurrection and new life.

When Jesus re-names Simon, and makes him the rock of the church, and gives him the keys to the Kingdom… it is not a moment of granting privilege or benefits… It is a moment of reminding Peter, the disciples and us of the responsibility we bear.

That we are firstly a community of faith. Faith is not a by-product of our community, but rather community and our love and care for one another is a by-product of our faith. Forgiveness is not a power the church wields over people, but rather something we are not to withhold. We are to forgive sinners. Period. And new life… well resurrection and new life is the story that we tell… or rather that Jesus tells through us, week after week, year after year.

Through Peter, through the disciples, through us, Christ proclaims again and again that death does not have the final word. Christ proclaims through us New Life given for all and for us.

Today, Jesus asks a pretty simple question to the disciples and to us. But the result is a reminder, again, of just how Christ is re-naming and transforming Peter and us, into the his body. Into the Body of Christ giving forgiveness, mercy and new life to the world.

The Canaanite Woman and Charlottesville

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Read the whole passage)

The early church had a problem. It didn’t know what to do with the gentiles. Within a just a few decades of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension the small but growing communities of followers of Jesus the Messiah, didn’t know if or how they could include gentiles or non-Jewish people among their ranks. This question of inclusion vs exclusion caused a lot of struggle and conflict for those early faith congregations.

Today, we continue in this long season of ordinary time to hear the stories and episodes of Jesus’ ministry. And while it may seem like the gospel stories have been conveniently arranged in way that allows us to tell the story of Jesus throughout our liturgical year… that is not the case today.

The purpose behind the story of Jesus’ and the Canaanite woman’s encounter was about addressing the gentile problem of the early church more so than our need for a collection of vignettes of Jesus’ ministry to read throughout our summer church services.

And while it isn’t all that often that the stories of gospels have distinct and significant purpose other than telling the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, today we encounter one of the few texts that is included in the gospels for a particular reason.

As Jesus and the disciples are travelling about the countryside, they enter the district of Tyre and Sidon – Gentile territory near what we know today and Syria and Lebanon. As Jesus and the disciples a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and begins to shout,

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…”

Now it is important to know that 1st century Galilee and the surrounding gentile regions were not pluralistic and multicultural in the way Canada is today. While there were people of different ethnicities, religions, and class, their world was no a tolerant place. Jews, like Jesus and his disciples, were careful not to mix with the gentiles. They did not speak to, eat with, or even touch gentiles unless absolutely necessary. If they did, they would become ritually unclean and need to become ritually clean again.

This practice of avoidance of gentiles led to enthno-centric attitudes… what we would call racist today. Gentiles were often perceived to be less than human. In fact, to call someone a “Canannite” was not a description of their ancestry but derogatory term that Matthew, the gospel writer, uses for the woman (Mark identifies her as Syrophoenician or Syrian). In the OT, God was believed to had commanded the genocide of the Canaanites, and so Canaanite became the slur used for all gentiles, with the connotation that Canaanites weren’t even worthy of being alive.

The Canaanite woman’s problems were of course worsened by the fact that she was a woman… a person not even permitted to be alone in public, let alone speak to a man, let alone a Jewish man. And to top if off, the Canaanite woman had a demon-possessed daughter… and by association would be completely and totally unclean.

And so when Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman who comes to him asking for mercy… his response of calling her a dog, while sounding pretty bad to our ears, would be nearly the maximum amount of compassion that someone could show such an undesirable person under Jewish law.

The Canaanite woman and Jesus are constrained and limited by the cultural systems that existed around them. The woman lived in world where she couldn’t even be considered human by Jesus… and Jesus’ world didn’t allow him to consider this woman, seeking mercy for her sick daughter, as a human being.

And while we would like to have a smug feeling about how backward the world was with their complicated efforts to excludes and dehumanize each other 2000 years ago… we have been witnesses this week to examples of the ways in which not much has changed.
As the events of Charlottesville played out last weekend over the news, we saw the incredible and terrible lengths that human beings can go to just to exclude, denigrate and dehumanize anyone who looks different. As White Nationalists – or really White Supremacists – marched in the streets with weapons and violent intentions for the sake of a statue glorifying the racist history of African American slavery… we saw what a racist culture looks like in action. A culture very similar to what we read about in the gospel today.

Just as the Canaanite woman and Jesus were trapped and constrained by the cultural systems around them… we see how the extraordinary lengths that people go to in order segregation, excludes and dehumanize fellow human beings, trap and constrain them too. Traps them in their hatred, traps them in their intolerance… traps them in cycles of conflict and violence that never seem to end.

As the Canaanite woman comes seeking mercy from Jesus she persists. Even as Jesus insists that she is not one of the ones he has come for, not one of the children of Israel, she continues to ask for mercy.

And in what could have been a White Nationalist quoted in the news this week, Jesus says,

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”

And with that the woman should have got the message, she should have realized that she wasn’t one of the chosen, she was simply not the right colour, or religion, or gender, or clean enough or human enough to receive mercy…

But she persists still…

She persists with Jesus.

Because she has heard that Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent by God, the one who is God’s mercy in flesh, walking the streets of her town.

And if Jesus is the Messiah, than the woman’s identity doesn’t matter. This isn’t about whether or not she is included or excluded, it isn’t about whether she is the right race, wether she worships God in the right way, whether she is the right gender, wether she is clean…

It is about Jesus and what it means for him to be the Messiah.

Because God’s mercy is not based in human cultural systems. God’s mercy isn’t given based on arbitrary categories like skin colour or gender or ritual cleanliness.

God’s mercy is given outside of the systems we live by. God’s mercy transcends race, gender, class and all other divisions of human invention.

The woman persists, asking Jesus for mercy for her daughter, because encountering God’s mercy in flesh has already transformed the Canaanite woman. God’s mercy personified in Christ transforms the world simply by being recognized and known.

And so the woman reminds Jesus that there are enough table scraps for even the dogs. That in Christ, God’s mercy in flesh, there is more than enough. More mercy than the children of Israel need, and enough mercy for even the dogs.

Yet by encountering God’s mercy in flesh, by seeking out the God of Mercy, the Lord, Son of David… the Canaanite woman is no longer less than human. Or rather, Jesus and the woman come into a relationship beyond what the cultural ethnocentric rules say. Jesus and the woman are no longer defined by human categories, but by God’s categories.

As Jesus acknowledges her and finally giving her the mercy and healing she seeks for her daughter, Jesus gives this woman a place in the Kingdom. Jesus acknowledges that this untouchable woman is, indeed, worthy of God’s mercy. Because God has declared her so.

And even though her world says she is less than human, God’s mercy given for her declares that she is, in fact, a child of God.

Just as God’s mercy comes and changes the world from the outside of racist cultural systems for Jesus and the Canaanite woman, this is the same place where God is at work among us. At work in Charlottesville, in Barcelona, at work in the all the places where we try to exclude rather than include. At work in the early church who eventually included gentiles in God’s kingdom.

As White Nationalists waked the streets of Charlottesville, as religious extremists committed acts of violence rooted in the division of race… Christ comes to us. Not proposing alternate systems, not telling us that we can solve this problems of division and hatred simply by “doing better.”

Instead, as the daughter of the Canaanite woman is healed and as the woman is humanized by Jesus’ turn towards compassion… we are reminded that the solution to our problems of race and religion can only be solved the One who comes to us from the outside.

We can only experience true mercy when God’s mercy in flesh walks our streets and frees us from systems and categories and idea that tell us some are more important, more human than others.

God’s mercy in flesh, walking our streets, comes to Charlottesville, comes to Barcelona, comes to all the places where we would try to call others less than human…

And God’s mercy in flesh, walking our streets, declares that God’s mercy is given, for us and for all.

Why White Supremacy is a Sin

The events of Charlottesville, VA over the weekend were truly tragic and deplorable. One of the things that struck me was just how groundless and arbitrary the reasons were for white nationalists to gather for a rally. How pointless was the violence and death inflicted on people over a statue?

Even here in Canada, this kind of open display of hatred evoked a visceral reaction. To see nazis and klan members taking the streets was surreal. This is something that used to belong only in historical source footage and fictionalized movies. And yet there it was, in my newsfeed along side the regular photos of friends on holidays, recipe videos, cat pics and other news articles.

As a white Christian, I cannot help but feel outraged and shamed by the images and videos of white men who look just like me “rallied” thinking they were standing up for themselves. There is simply no excuse or moral justification for what took place in Charlottesville.

As a pastor, I struggled with how to address the events of the weekend. And I confess, that I did not re-write or change my sermon to address the issue of white nationalism (I did address Charlottesville in the intercessory prayers). But still I agreed with the many calls for pastors – white pastors in particular – to name the sin of white supremacy and racism. This article in particular named the need for pastors to speak out very well.

But one thing I noticed that was largely absent or only briefly address are the reasons why white supremacy is a sin. And while it may seem obvious to many or most people that this kind of hatred is sinful, I don’t think it is understood by or obvious to all.

In fact, I quite honestly doubt that those who espouse white supremacy and Christian faith understand why the two are incompatible. While some may choose to hate knowing that it is ‘wrong,’ I think many simply don’t understand that this hatred is, in fact, wrong and sinful.

So hopefully to add some clarity to the call to name white supremacy as a sin, here is the  why:

Sin

To begin with, we need to understand what is sin. So often we think of sins as “bad things” that we do. This is only a surface and passing understanding. To better understand sin, it needs to be more deeply understood in two ways. First, sin is distortion in our relationship with God. Second, sin is distortion in our relationships with other people and creation.

Sin is when we put ourselves first. When we put ourselves above God, trying to be God in God’s place (Commandments 1-3 in the Lutheran order). It is also when we put ourselves above others and creation, tying to be God over others and creation (Commandments 4-10 in the Lutheran order).

The sin of hierarchy

White supremacy is a sin because it elevates some people above other people for arbitrary reasons. It attempts to claim that some (white people) are more fully human, while others (people of colour) are less human. This is a violation of commandments 4-10 meant to keep our relationships with others and creation in balance. This is also a violation of commandments 1-3 meant to remind us of who is God, and that God alone defines our humanity.

The sin of trying to be like God

White supremacy is also a sin because it also tries to claim who is worthy of God’s love and favour, saying that God has arbitrarily chosen some people (white people) over others (people of colour). God alone chooses who is worthy of God’s love and favour, and God has chosen all peoples and all nations.

The sin of limiting the Gospel

And finally, the most important, white supremacy is a sin a because it tries to constrain and control the gospel, and ultimately to control and constrain God. God in Christ has declared that grace is given for all people. To restrict the Gospel or the Good News is to attempt to confine and control God, to be God in God’s place.

Trying to be God in God’ place is at the root of all sin.

The Gospel overcomes sin and death

God became incarnate in flesh to show us (all humanity) that the New Life given in Christ is given for all people. And there is no ideology based on arbitrary differences (like skin colour) that can constrain that Good News.

And in the face of racism and white supremacy, the Good News is that Christ is not controlled or restricted by white supremacists (not matter what they claim) or any others who would claim to limit Christ’s saving act of dying on the cross and rising to New Life so that New Life may be given for all.

The Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is something that God has given to all peoples and no one can change that.

So as pastors and other leaders in faith continue on through this week and into next Sunday naming and condemning the sin of white supremacy, my hope is that we also take the time to say why.

Because in saying why white supremacy is sinful, we also remind people that God’s love, mercy and grace is given for all.

Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years for Lutherans, Protestants and the Church

This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st.

This act is considered by many as the beginning of the Reformation.

For Lutherans, Martin Luther’s particular witness to the gospel of Christ forms the basis of our confession and understanding of the Christian faith.

So as Reformation 500 approaches this year, Lutherans all over the world are commemorating the anniversary (as opposed to celebrating) and we are trying to include brothers and sisters of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, where possible.

As I attended the National Convention of the denomination in which I serve, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, we have been asked to consider what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

This question has been rumbling around in my mind for a long time and in a renewed way this 500th anniversary year.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is deeply related to the biggest struggles of European and North American churches, most notably it relates to our experience of decline. Before getting to what I think the next 500 years will hold for us, the issue of delcine needs to be addressed.

Humans have this habit of thinking that what just happened will continue happening indefinitely. We, in this North American context of Lutheranism and wider Christianity, have been experiencing churches that are dropping in membership and attendance, budgets that are getting bigger while giving is shrinking and the average age of those still in the pews and contributing is getting older. And because this is our most recent experience we assume that the future holds more of the same.

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, the same kind of convention that I attended for my denomination would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years, that the 3 or 4 Lutheran bodies that each look like the above picture will be merged together and look like this when they gather:

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Photo Credit – https://www.facebook.com/CanadianLutherans/

Thousands reduced to less than 200.

Those people back in the 50s and 60s would have laughed and laughed and laughed… But this is where we are now. So what would make people today laugh and laugh and laugh… not a prediction of more of the same. But perhaps a predication that churches will be filled once again… filled with a new spirit and new vitality that we would have never dreamed or imagined. It won’t be the 50s again, but it will be something unexpected and new.

You see, we also have to think back 100 years to gain perspective. Much of North American Christianity looked similar to where we are now. There were some large and thriving groups, but lots of small communities barely able too keep up buildings, barely able to pay pastors, barely able to fund seminaries or missionaries or wider church structures. Many church groups were marginal to larger society and many churches didn’t make it and were lost to history.

But think about it, society was in a time of great transition. Conflict was the story of global politics (WW1), immigration was high (settling the western part of the continent), new technologies were changing the way people lived (electricity, telephones, automobiles, modern medicine etc…). And it remained messy for nearly the entire first half of the 20th century.

But this chaotic situation eventually led to many, many people seeking a truth greater than themselves, finding solace in the promises of a God who was in control when the world seemed ready to end, finding comfort in faith despite the rapid pace of new technology constantly changing the world.

We don’t have to think about our current world situation very long to see the similarities, to see that our political and economic world which once seemed to provide a stability for people to live their lives on, is turning into an instability that is only going to get worse before it gets better.

Most predications that I hear about the next 500 or 50 or 5 years tell us that decline will simply continue indefinitely and we are just going to have to accept that.

I don’t.

I don’t think that the antidote to decline is to simply be better sales people for church with flashiest and shiniest features to entice largest slice of a shrinking pie of interested people into church.

I think the church is about to be one of the few places of hope that many people will have to turn to in our increasingly chaotic world. I think that some political leader may just push that red button (and no it will not be like an apocalypse movie) or some aspect of climate change will be pushed over the edge, or some hacker will decide that it is time to empty everyone’s bank account… or most likely I think that through difficult struggle and resistance the average people of the world – who are sick of living under systems that privilege a small few – will decide this is not acceptable anymore.

And a paired down church will have to be ready. Ready to welcome the masses who have no where else to turn for hope. The masses who no longer rely on the invisible forces of the world (governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society) to care for them.

Over the coming years and decades, as most church leaders anticipate more decline, the world is going to surprise us. The world is going to surprise us by needing what the church has to offer.

Let me offer and example.

In 2015,  the National Church Council of the denomination that I serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada wanted to challenge our church body to 4 different ways of commemorating Reformation 500. We were encouraged to raise $500,000 for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), to provide 500 scholarships for students in Jordan and the Holy Land, to plant 500,000 trees and to sponsor 500 refugees.

As the story goes, the intial idea was the above with one fewer zero on each number. But a particular council member said, “let’s slap a zero on these challenges.”

Of course the council did not expect us to meet those goals, but swinging for the upper deck was better than just going for a base hit.

Two years later, we have raised 150,000 for the LWF (3 times the pre “slap a zero on it goal”), we have provided 160 scholarships (3 times the original goal), and we have planted 80,000 trees (almost two times the original goal.

But here is where it gets interesting.

Since 2015, and with several months to go before Oct 31, we have sponsored 540 refugees exceeding the “slap a zero on it” goal and more than 10 times the original goal!

How did we do that?

Well just a couple months after our 2015 national convention, the body of a young Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. A boy who had been denied entrance to Canada. A boy whose tragic death mobilized the world. 

So did we meet our “slap a zero on it goal” because we are a church of expert refugee sponsors? Hardly.

But rather the world needed what we had to offer. Which was communities small enough to care for families who needed help, but large enough to mobilize enough money, furniture, and volunteers to settle newcomers in our commmnities.

All we needed to do was let our anxieties about decline die just long enough to see that God was bringing about tangible new life through us. God is using us for real resurrection.

It is in this intersecting place that a declining church meets a world in need of hope.

The decline of North American churches in the past few decades is not a never ending trend. But I do think God is using this time to help us shed our baggage. God is letting us struggle so that we can get all the wrong fixes and solutions to decline out of our system. So that we can try trendy music and flashy tech and hip pastors. So we can try to reincarnate the knitting groups and service clubs and curling bonspiels of the past. So that we can get all the complaining and shaming of our family, friends and neighbours over with. So that we can see that nothing we come up with will be the solution to our problems.

God is letting us experience decline long enough to finally die to our memories and nostalgia of the glory days and realize that the only thing the church ever had was the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All we ever were at our best are communities grounded in Christ’s new life given for us.

To be honest, I think in many ways the next 500 years for Lutherans and for North American Christianity will look a lot like the last 500. We will continue to be communities where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered. Sometimes we will be strong in number and power. Other times we will be weak and marginalized. But in the end, neither of those realities matter.

That God is answering all the sin and death in the world with resurrection and new life proclaimed in churches just like us does.

Abraham failed the test… and so did God

Genesis 22:1-14

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. (Read the whole text)

Here we are back into the long season of green, the chance to explore the various stories the bible. The Gospel readings of this season tell about Jesus’s teachings and ministry. The Epistle readings take us through the various letters of the New Testament to explore what was happening in the early church. And the Old Testament readings give us the stories of God’s people.

Today, the story of Abraham and Isaac is simply too tempting to avoid exploring.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one we know well. It is a story that is not only familiar when we hear it, it is one whose themes are used over and over in literature, movies  and TV. How often is the hero in a movie faced with an impossible choice involving the sacrifice of someone that they love?

The reason that Christians know this story of Abraham so well is that it is often used as an example of faithfulness. Abraham is an example of unwavering faith, so the idea goes. And on the surface it is an idea that makes sense.

In order that Abraham demonstrate his faith, God orders Abraham to put his faith before everything. Before the love he has for Sarah and their only son. Before  the love that Abraham has for Isaac, the son who will be person who carries Abraham’s legacy into the future. Without Isaac, Abraham and Sarah are simply people who will be forgotten to the sands of time.

And Abraham delivers. He shows us what it means to be faithful. Abraham’s faith is so powerful an example that even the authors of the New Testament point to it as a model to follow.

Abraham is willing to sacrifice his own son if God asks. Unwavering faith.

Or perhaps blind faith.

Or perhaps radical faith.

Radical fanaticism even.

Because we don’t usually call people willing to kill for their faith great examples… we have other words for those people don’t we?

And what about God? In this story, God asks his chosen disciples and follower to sacrifice his son, the very son that is the fulfillment of the covenant.

Have we read this story right? Christians have been using Abraham as an example of faith for hundreds of years, and the Hebrew people for thousands before that.

But blind faith or radical fanaticism is not normally the kind of faith that we are trying to help grow in people, in ourselves.

And a God who toys with us simply to “test” our faith doesn’t seem very loving or caring.

So what is going on in this story?

Well, to understand how Abraham and Isaac arrive at this moment, we need to go back to the beginning.

The oldest part of the bible is not found in the stories of creation or the garden of Eden or in Noah’s flood. Rather Abraham’s is the oldest. And ten chapters before Abraham and Isaac, the story begins. Back when Abraham was Abram, and Sarah was Sarai, God called these two to take up everything they had to go to the land that God would show them.

Abraham’s story begins with a 3 part covenant made with God. God promises Abraham land, descendants and a relationship. And this 3 fold promise becomes the focus of the rest of the book of Genesis, and to some degree the rest of the Old Testament.

So Abraham and Sarah pack up everything and go. And when God says, “Go” Abraham is really good at going. He is always willing to go when God calls.

But it is this other part of the promise… the descendants one that Abraham has trouble with. Going is easy… when God commands it, Abraham does it either out of faithfulness or perhaps fear. But the promise of descendants is tougher. Faith in this promise cannot be rooted in obedience out of fearfulness. Believing that God will provide this barren couple with children takes hope, it takes faith in the future, and faith in the third promise, that Abraham and Sarah are indeed God’s chosen.

And so Abraham goes, but as soon as he encounters the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt he gives Sarah away to be a part of Pharaoh’s harem, claiming Sarah is his sister, not his wife. So God has to intervene to save the day.

And then Sarah, fearing that she will not provide a son, tells Abraham to have a child with the servant Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael… but he is not the son that God promised.

Next God tells Abraham directly that Sarah will bear a son, and all Abraham can do is fall to the ground in laughter.

And two weeks ago we heard the story of God showing up again to tell Abraham and Sarah that she will bear a son and this time Sarah laughs.

And after all this, Abraham gives Sarah to King Abimelech for his harem, again requiring God to intervene.

So finally, after 9 chapters of Abraham’s struggle to believe the promise of children, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

And the long awaited, hard to believe promise has come to fruition.

Yet still Abraham still struggles to believe in the promise, in hope for a future. Even with Isaac in his arms now.

Some Rabbis suggest that the test that God gives Abraham is not one of obedience. That it isn’t a game of chicken that God is playing. In fact, God knows that Abraham will follow the commands, he has always been willing to go when called.

But does Abraham have faith in God’s future? Does he believe that God will make him the father of God’s chosen people?

So just one chapter after Isaac’s birth, God gives the command to sacrifice Isaac.

So Abraham goes and for three days – without a word of protest – walks to the mountain with Isaac. And when they arrive, Isaac asks where the lamb to be sacrificed is… and Abraham says something about God providing it, knowing full well that there isn’t a lamb. Abraham then leaves his servants and pack animals behind, and goes to the ritual place with Isaac. There he ties up his son, binds his son like lamb to be slaughtered and places him on the altar.

And without hesitation raises the knife.

In that moment, when you take into account everything that has happened in the ten chapters before this… Abraham has not passed the test.

He has failed.

And so has God.

For ten chapters, through rescuing Abraham from himself, from proving wrong Abraham’s laughter at what he and Sarah thought was impossible, God must have thought that Abraham would finally believe that promise, the promise of descendants, the promise of hope and a future.

And yet for 3 days Abraham marched to mountain without a word of protest. Abraham looked his son in the eye and lied about what or who would be sacrificed. Abraham tied up his son and placed him on an altar of sacrifice. God must have expected that Abraham would protest or bargain, just as he had for the people of Sodom. God must have thought that Abraham would demand that God live up to the covenant, that God certainly wouldn’t just arbitrarily take away Abraham’s future. God waited for the protest. But nothing.

And so Abraham fails the test… but so does God, for a good test is one a student can pass.

And yet there on mountain, standing above Isaac with his knife in hand… just maybe it is Abraham who teaches God something, maybe it is Abraham who tests God.

Perhaps after 10 chapters of trying to get Abraham to believe in the covenant, in the promise of hope and future that God makes with Abraham, God realizes that Abraham cannot have faith… only fear. Fear that drives him to go when God commands, but fear that prevents him from having hope.

So God intervenes.

God caries the hope for the future that Abraham cannot.

God upholds God’s part of the covenant… even if Abraham cannot have faith in the promise…

God will have hope in Abraham, even when all the signs say that God shouldn’t.

God sends a ram.

God sends a ram who is a sign that God will not give up on us.

God sends a lamb who will be not a sign of death on an altar, but life on a cross.

A lamb whose coming into our world will signify God’s unwavering faith in us.

A lamb who is God’s promise of hope and future in the flesh.

For you see, we are just like Abraham.

In fact we are Abraham.

We too find the promises of God laughable, we find the threats to our future too much to confront, we too have difficulty seeing our hope and our future… even when God plunks signs right in our arms.

And so God sends us the lamb who will save us.

The Christ who is found in the thicket of the church.

The Christ who is mercy and reprieve from the knives that we threaten our hope with.

The Christ who is life, when there is surely and only death in store for us.

The Christ who is God’s promise in flesh.

Abraham’s faithfulness is nothing to be marvelled at, he isn’t a model to aspire to…

Abraham is a model of the faith we already have.

As too is Abraham’s fear the same fear that we carry. Fear that is dispelled each and every time we gather around God’s word of promise and hope for us.

Abraham reminds us that God knows we cannot be faithful on our own… and so God is faithful for us. God knows that the promise of Christ is our hope and our future.

God is one the passes the test for us.