Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Homefest 2007

If you live in Edmonton, I hope you'll be coming out to Homefest on Sunday afternoon from 2-7 p.m. Here's what their Facebook page says:
This event will bring together some of the city’s best-known folk and roots musicians and touring artists who are in town to lend their gifts in support of those experiencing the lack of affordable housing and homelessness.

Homefest 2007 performers:
Asani/ Myrol
Al Brant Band/ Joe Nolan
Michelle Boudreau/ Raisin’ Cain
Down to the Wood/ Samantha Schultz
Caity Fisher/ Marty Siltanen & The Bloomin’ Thistles/
Roy Forbes/ Anna Somerville
David Francey/ John Spearn
Jay Gilday/ Thaneah & Ten Feet of Hair
Brian Gregg & Patsy Amico/ Ann Vriend
Andrea House/ Jasmine Whenham

Joanne Myrol, of the group Myrol, says “Having been on the edge of homelessness when I was a single mom and new to Edmonton, I can empathize with the plight of those living on the streets. The harsh reality is that in this winter city, not everyone has the comfort of a warm bed and shelter. Homefest and Edmontonians are working together for shelter, comfort, and safety through a song.”

“On a typical night more than 2600 people are homeless in our city,” explains ECOHH spokesperson Jim Gurnett. “There is a shortage of 6000 units of low-income affordable housing and waiting lists for available units are years long. Needs range from emergency shelter to special supported housing to low-income rental units. It is vital for more people to understand this and speak up in support of action.”

Proceeds from the concert this year are going to the John Howard Society for their transitional housing work, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers for a camp for youth in their supported housing, and Operation Friendship to assist clients with moving expenses and obtaining identification.

A children’s activity center, art and information displays, and an acoustic song circle will complement the four music stages.

Tickets are available for only $10 at:
Earth’s General Store (10832 Whyte Avenue)
Myhre’s Music (8715-118 Avenue)
Tix on the Square (3 Winston Churchill Square)
Grant MacEwan College Bookstores

Children under 12 attend for free.

SEE for more information.

A great cause and great music. I hope I'll see you there!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sermon for October 28th: Luke 18:9-14

“God, Be Merciful To Me, A Sinner!”

You might have noticed that in the Anglican world at the moment there’s a civil war going on about the subject of homosexuality. On the one hand we have the churches in North America, where a majority seem to be in favour of changing the official teaching of the church to allow gay and lesbian people to get married to partners of the same sex, and to take a full part in the ordained ministry of the church while continuing in those marriages. On the other hand, we have the churches of the so-called ‘Global South’, where the vast majority take the traditional view, and see the North American church as abandoning the clear teaching of scripture.

Actually, both sides appeal to the scriptures. The traditionalists appeal to the texts in Levicitus which condemn a man lying with a man as with a woman, and the texts in Paul which talk about men and women exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural and so on. The liberals reply by claiming that Paul wasn’t talking about people who want to make life-commitments to each other, but rather to people who want to be promiscuous and have gay sex with anyone they want. And they appeal to Jesus’ gospel example of reaching out to marginalised people and including them in the circle of his disciples.

Who’s right? Well, there are people on both sides of the issue who are absolutely sure that they are right, with no shadow of a doubt – or so it seems by the confidence of their pronouncements. The one possibility that doesn’t seem to have entered into their heads is the possibility that they might be wrong. On the last day, when the Lord comes again to judge the living and the dead, they are quite confident that they will be vindicated and their opponents will be shown up for the evil and unchristian people that they really are. I say again – I’ve encountered this attitude in people on both sides of this issue.

Now, why am I using this illustration as an introduction to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector? Well, it’s the little word ‘justified’ in verse 14 that I want to focus in on. Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted”.

What does that word ‘justified’ mean? Well, come with me, if you will, to a courtroom. A civil case is being presented. Someone is claiming that his rights have been infringed, perhaps in a property dispute of some kind. The plaintiff sits there with his legal team; they assemble their evidence and present it in a systematic way. This is what happened, this is why our client is claiming that his rights are violated. The defence team makes the opposite case: no, the facts aren’t quite the way the plaintiff says, or perhaps the interpretation placed on them by our learned friends isn’t quite accurate. Through it all, the judge is listening, making notes, weighing the evidence that both teams present to him. At the end of the case the judge will make a decision. One of the two parties before him will be vindicated, or ‘justified’- that is, will be declared to be in the right.

That’s what ‘justification’ means – it’s a legal term, from the courtroom, meaning that at the end of the trial someone’s claim to justice is vindicated. The biblical writers take this legal term and use it as an illustration of God’s declaration that a person, or a nation, is ‘in the right’ with him, and in the time of Jesus the people of Israel saw this vindication as an eschatological event. Now there’s a word you don’t hear very often on coffee row, right? But don’t be scared by it. The Greek word ‘eschaton’ means ‘the end, the last things, the final consummation that we’re all looking for and hoping for’ – the time when God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, on earth as in heaven. So, in the view of the Jewish people, the time of the coming of God’s kingdom will be the time when God will finally vindicate his people, in a way that is obvious for all to see. Just like those Anglicans who are confident that on the last day the Lord is going to rule in their favour, the Jewish people looked to the future, when God would vindicate those who were his own – which, they assumed, meant them!

You see, the people of Israel saw themselves as the plaintiffs in a great lawsuit. It went something like this: ‘God, we’re supposed to be your chosen people. You gave us the Law of Moses and we’ve done our best to obey it. But what respect have we got for it? Look at all these pagan foreigners who’ve walked all over us! They don’t keep your law; they worship idols and commit all sorts of disgusting sins. But over and over again they’ve invaded us and burnt our cities down and stolen our land and oppressed us and made us suffer. It’s as if they’re really your people, not us! Now – how long do we have to wait before our claim to be your people is justified, before you vindicate us in this great heavenly tribunal? How long will it be before your people receive the justice they deserve?’

Okay, now let’s take this courtroom analogy a little further. Those of you who hang around courtrooms for a living know that it’s not enough for a claim to be made by a plaintiff; the claim has to be justified by the offering of evidence. So if the claim is that you are in fact God’s chosen people – or, in the case of an individual, that you are a member of God’s chosen people – what constitutes valid evidence to prove that claim? The traditional answer was, ‘Well, God gave us the Torah, the Law of Moses, and we obey it. These pagan foreigners who’ve been oppressing us don’t obey it! Therefore, you should vindicate us by driving them out of our land and punishing them!’

But if you know anything at all about the history of Israel, you’ll know that it’s not quite as simple as that. God may have given Israel the Law, but for large periods of their history Israel was not particularly good at living by that Law. In fact, they chased after idols, worshipping Baal and Asherah and the other gods that their neighbours worshipped. And even though the Law told them to care for the poor and needy and to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with their God, they weren’t too good at actually putting those things into practice. The ones who had been given the Law turned out to be lawbreakers; in fact, their lives weren’t all that different from the pagan foreigners they were looking down on.

On the other hand, in the Old Testament story we get little hints here and there that even pagan foreigners who turn in humility to the God of Israel and learn to walk in his ways will be vindicated as his people. For instance, we have the little story of Ruth. She was born in the neighbouring country of Moab, but she married an Israelite boy who had moved to Moab with his family when there was a famine in Israel. But there were tough times ahead for Ruth. We’re not told the exact circumstances, but her husband, her brother in law and her father in law all died there in Moab. Eventually Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi decided to return to her native town of Bethlehem in Judah. She expected that Ruth would choose to stay in Moab, but to her surprise the young woman decided to go to Bethlehem with her: ‘Your people will be my people’, she said, ‘and your god will be my god’. So this young foreigner moved to Bethlehem, and showed by her actions in caring for her mother in law that she understood the spirit of the Law of Moses, even though she had not been raised in it. Eventually she married into Naomi’s family again, in the person of a local landowner named Boaz, and she became the great-grandmother of the famous king, David. The outsider became an insider, even contributing to Israel’s royal family tree.

And that’s the story we have in this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It takes place in the Temple, the place of prayer and worship for God’s chosen people. The Temple was set up in such a way as to emphasise that some were in and some were out. There were several courtyards surrounding the most holy place where it was believed that God lived. The furthest out was the court of the Gentiles, where the tables of the moneychangers were set up; they had to be content with praying with all that noise and bustle around them. Next in was the court of women; that was as far as the women could go. Further in was the court of the men of Israel, then the court of priests, and lastly the holy place, right at the centre of the Temple.

We assume that this little scene in Jesus’ parable is taking place in the court of the men of Israel. It’s supposed to be a place of prayer, but the Pharisee has made it into a lawcourt, a place of competition. He’s brought his superiority to the tax collector right into his prayer life. Look at verse 11:
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income”.
You see what the Pharisee is doing? He’s presenting evidence in a lawsuit. “God, I am one of your chosen people – far more deserving of the claim than anyone else I know, and particularly that scumbag in the corner over there! I’ve been honest, faithful to my marriage vows; I’ve disciplined myself in fasting and given sacrificially, offering a tenth of all my income to you”.

Let’s stop to recognise that the Pharisee was probably telling the truth. He was not a bad man; he was a very good man. In fact, we’d have loved to have him here at St. Margaret’s; his tithe would have been very useful to help us meet our budget! He had a strong marriage and good kids who didn’t run with the wrong people. He never cheated on his expense account, and his business was probably a model of honesty and ethical dealing.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all, as far as it goes. But the problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t deal with the question, “What’s in this guy’s heart?” Because when you look at his prayer as a whole, you see that here is a man who is totally absorbed in himself. He’s a good man, and he knows it, and he wants to make sure everyone else knows it as well! A man like that isn’t going to admit his failures to God. He isn’t going to say, “God, I’ve tried to keep your commandment against adultery, but I have to admit I noticed that pretty girl in the office the other day”. He’s not going to say, “God, I’ve tried to be honest, but I have to admit I wasn’t as generous as I should have been when the church was appealing for the water well project last month”. No – he’s presenting evidence, and it’s a highly competitive environment. He’s only going to tell the good things about himself; he’s going to keep the bad things quiet and hope no one finds out.

And that’s the difference between him and the tax collector. Most of you know that tax collectors in the time of Jesus were pretty unsavoury characters. The Romans farmed tax collection out to the highest bidder, and they didn’t care how much extra the tax collectors charged as long as they remitted the required sum of money to Rome. So the Pharisee was probably quite accurate in describing the tax collector as a thief and a rogue. Also, because tax collectors were not allowed into the Jewish synagogues they tended to scoff at religion and morality and live their lives exactly as they pleased with no care for the requirements of God’s law.

But this tax collector has one great virtue: he tells the truth about himself! He knows he has absolutely no evidence to present to justify himself; all he can do is to throw himself on the mercy of the court and plead for a pardon. And that’s exactly what he does:
‘But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’ (vv.13-14).

What’s the story telling us? It’s telling us that if you want to be welcomed into the presence of God, give up the idea of parading your good deeds – for two reasons. First, they’re never the whole story – there are all sorts of stories of failure as well. Personally, I’m very glad that my innermost thoughts aren’t projected on a big screen for all of you here to see; if they were, I’d be hanging my head in shame. And secondly, the very fact that I might be tempted to parade my good deeds shows that I’m fundamentally a self-absorbed person anyway, which isn’t exactly a commendable thing!

No – if we want to enter the presence of God, we have to do what the tax collector did – tell the truth about ourselves. Just like an alcoholic who can’t be helped unless he’s willing to admit that he’s an alcoholic, we can’t get any help with our sin addiction until we admit that we are in fact sinners. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” seems at first glance to be the admission that’s going to get us excluded from the kingdom, but in the end it turns out to be our ticket to the kingdom. Because the world isn’t divided into sinners and good people; rather, it’s divided into people who admit they are sinners, and people who are too scared or too proud to admit it. God’s going to rescue us from our sins; make no mistake about that. But he can’t do it until we admit the fact that we need rescuing. That’s where we all start. The sooner we accept that fact, and begin to live in the spirit of the tax collector’s prayer, the better it will be for our relationship with God.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sermon for October 21st: Luke 17:20 - 18:8

Persistent Faith

I used to think that dogs wag their tails when they’re happy, but recently I’ve begun to revise that view. I’m sure it’s still true for many dogs, but I also observe that dogs wag their tails when they’re hopeful. For instance, when your dog wants to go for a walk, or when he wants something to eat, he comes and sits in front of you and wags his tail. When you finally give in and let him have what he wants, his tail stops wagging!

But of course in some cases the tail wagging also stops when the dog loses heart, gives up hope, and thinks to himself “This is getting me nowhere; I may as well go and lie down again”. And of course there are times for us as people when we experience the same thing. We start out full of hope that things are going to change and we’re going to get what we want, but then we have to wait longer and longer and eventually it’s tempting to think “This is getting me nowhere; I may as well accept that it’s going to be business as usual forever”.

Our Gospel for today is addressed to people who are tempted to give up hope. On the surface, it seems to be all about prayer, about keeping on praying and not losing heart. And this is indeed a vital part of the passage, but it isn’t the only part. The big picture is of a universe in which the promise of God’s kingdom seems to be a cruel joke, and in which the victims of society lose all hope of justice. What is an appropriate Christian response to this? That’s the big picture Jesus is addressing here. Let’s look at the passage under three headings: our apparent situation, our reality, and our responsibility.

First, then, our apparent situation. The big picture in this passage is that one day the followers of Jesus will find themselves in the situation where they will be waiting for some cataclysmic event that will vindicate them and will show that Jesus is in the right. What cataclysmic event does Jesus have in mind? There are two prime candidates for the position. It could be the Fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Rome in 70 A.D., or it could be the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. Equally good and devout New Testament scholars are divided on this issue.

For myself I tend to see the passage as looking forward to the four year siege of Jerusalem from 66-70 A.D., culminating in the fall of the city in 70 A.D. Jesus predicted this event, especially in Luke 21:5-6 where the disciples came to him and pointed out the beautiful stones of the Temple, and he replied “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”. This city, a symbol of the religious establishment in Jesus’ time, had rejected him and crucified him and continued to reject and persecute his followers afterwards. In the face of this ongoing persecution it would be easy for them to give up hope that God will help them. In the days of Noah before the flood, or the days before the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, it seemed as if life would go on as normal forever, and that was how it seemed both to the religious authorities who were persecuting the church, and to the persecuted Christians themselves.

But in fact the time would come when ‘the Son of Man would be revealed’ – that is, would be shown to have been correct in the things he said about Jerusalem and about his own mission. This would not be a mystical, interior event, but a public event as obvious as lightning flashing across the sky from one end to the other – or as obvious as a long siege ending with the fall of a city to a foreign army. When this siege came to its conclusion, some would be taken – that is, to imprisonment or death – and others would be left behind. Then the Roman armies would gather around the city like vultures gathering around a corpse; the word ‘vultures’ could also be translated ‘eagles’, and the Roman armies carried eagles as their banners.

The early Christians certainly read this passage in this way. They remembered Jesus’ instructions: “On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away, and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back” (17:31). History tells us that when the Roman armies approached Jerusalem, the Christians fled the city to the village of Pella, not too far away, and thus the Jerusalem church escaped the ravages of the siege.

Whether or not the interpretation I’ve taken of this passage is the correct one, certainly in the context of today’s Gospel the followers of Jesus are seen as still waiting to be vindicated and delivered by some cataclysmic event. And while they wait, they still live with opposition from the society around them, and with the temptation to live their lives as if ‘business as usual’ is the rule, and God is never going to intervene on their behalf. They are tempted to give up their faith and hope.

This is the situation of the widow in Jesus’ parable. The very fact that she goes to court herself, in the culture of her day, shows that she had no man to help her – court was a man’s world in those days, and a woman would be at a disadvantage there. And in her rotten luck, it turns out that the judge who hears her case has no concern for justice at all!

Jesus is saying to his followers “This is how the world is going to feel to you sometimes. You will see yourselves as victims of injustice, with no one to plead your case for you. God will seem to be distant and uncaring, no matter how often you cry out to him”. Before C.S. Lewis became a Christian he said to one of his friends that prayer often seemed to him like mailing letters to someone you’ve never met in a foreign country – and never getting any answers. ‘After a while’, he said’ ‘you begin to wonder if anyone is getting those letters’. I suspect we all feel like that from time to time.

But do our feelings correspond to reality? What, in fact, is our reality? Is God in fact like the rascally judge in Jesus’ story? No, he is not! This is not a story like the parable of the prodigal son, where the father is an obvious picture of God. Rather, this is a ‘how much more’ parable: ‘If even an unjust judge will answer a woman’s petition just to get rid of her pestering, how much more will your loving heavenly Father hear your prayers?

In fact, God is unlike the unjust judge in almost every way! God respects and cares for every individual. God is committed to justice. God doesn’t need constant reminders of what he should be doing. In fact, the only similarity between God and the unjust judge is in the result of the woman’s petition: God, like the unjust judge, will give justice to his people – but he will do it out of love, not out of desperate frustration.

Our problem, of course, comes in the timing of God’s answers! Why does it seem as if we have to wait so long, when Jesus says here that God ‘will quickly grant justice to them’?

There are various factors in the text that lead us to approach the word ‘quickly’ with caution. In verse 1 we’re told that this story is an exhortation for us ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’. But if God’s answers always came quickly, we wouldn’t be tempted to lose heart, would we? And at the end of the passage Jesus raises the issue of whether the Son of Man will find faith on the earth – which is obviously only an issue for us if we’ve had to wait for God’s answers.

In the psalms the writers often pray phrases such as “How long, O Lord – will you forget me forever?” But it’s always struck me that it’s a bit difficult to ask a Being who lives outside of time to hurry up! God sees the big picture. All of time is present to him – past, present and future. We can only look forward to the day when we will be delivered from trouble, but that day is already present to God in an experiential way – he’s already there! But we, of course, are not, and so we have to learn to trust him and to wait patiently for him to vindicate us. And that leads us to our final point: our responsibility.

Jesus asks in verse 8 “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Our responsibility as Christians is to live our lives in such a way that the answer to that question is “Yes”. How do we do that? We do it by our prayers and by our actions.

First, by our prayers. In verse 1 we read that this story is about our need ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’. We do this, not because God needs reminding of our needs, but because we need reminding of our dependence on him.

I keep prayer lists which I use every day. On them I pray that friends and family members who are not yet followers of Jesus will come to know and love him. I bring these same requests to God day by day, but I do that, not like a child pestering a reluctant parent, or even like a woman hounding an unjust judge. Rather, for me these prayers are simply my way of turning to God each day in faith, reminding myself that the conversion of people is a miracle that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.

I’m reminded of Vijay Menon, a man I met in England when I was a teenager. He told us about how a woman he knew had prayed for ten years that he would become a Christian. After ten years, the woman died – and two years later Vijay put his faith in Christ. It would have been easy for that woman to lose heart, but she did not – and in time, her prayers bore fruit, although she herself did not live to see it.

While we’re thinking about faithfulness in prayer, I think we surely need to learn something from this passage about the scope of our prayers. Jesus talks here about God ‘granting justice’ to his people who cry to him. We Christians must make that cry for justice part of our regular prayer life. We’re to pray, not just for ourselves, but also for all the suffering peoples of the world. In the Bible we Christians are described as being ‘a royal priesthood’. You are a part of that priesthood, and it is the responsibility of a priest to represent people to God, to speak to God on behalf of others.

John Stott once spoke in my hearing about a little church he’d attended somewhere in the American Midwest. When it came to the time in the service for what we Anglicans would call ‘the prayers of the people’, there were lots of prayers for people known to the congregation – for healings, for help for the suffering, for conversions and so on. But there were no prayers for any needs beyond the borders of that little town. I’ve never forgotten John’s comment; he said “These people worship a tribal god”. Let’s not be like them. Let’s by all means pray for our own concerns and our own loved ones, but let’s also go beyond that and pray in such a way that our compassion reaches around the whole world.

The Son of Man will see that there is faith on earth when he sees the evidence of our prayers, but also, secondly, the evidence of our actions. A prayer for justice is a kingdom prayer; it’s another way of saying to God “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. And when I pray that kind of prayer, I must immediately ask myself the question “What demands are my prayers making on me? How can I put legs on my prayer?” In other words, “How can I live in such a way that I am part of the answer to the prayer I just prayed?” And so if I am praying for God’s peace and justice for the suffering peoples of the world, it is then my responsibility to make my small contribution to that peace and justice in my own environment. If I’m praying for people I know to hear the Gospel and turn to Christ, it is then my responsibility to take the opportunities I have to put in a word of witness to them.

So let us not give up hope, even when reality seems bleak and hopeless to us – as it sometimes will. Let’s remember that our loving heavenly Father is not like the unjust judge in this story! And yet, if even an unjust judge will answer prayer, how much more will the Father who loves us! So let us be faithful each day in bringing our requests to him, both for ourselves and for people we know, and also for those all over the world who need his help. And let’s end our prayers each day with this thought: “How can I, in my situation, be a part of the answer to the prayer I’ve just prayed”.

Friday, October 19, 2007

An Update from Doug

There's an update from Doug MacNeill about his shoulder surgery - check it out on his blog here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Congratulations, Catherine!

Congratulations to Catherine Ripley, from our church, who was elected tonight as public school board trustee in Ward H here in Edmonton. Most of you will know that Catherine came very close to being elected last time around, winning 49.5% of the vote. This time her victory was decisive, with over 71% of the vote.

I hope you've all had a chance to visit Catherine's excellent website here. There's a sentence she uses on that website that I find really inspiring:
'For our future to be both prosperous and just, schools must be places where all learners develop their skills, gifts and talents fully and learn how to learn.'
As Christians we are committed not just to prosperity but also, and more importantly, to the fundamental justice for every human being which is God's will for us all. I know that Catherine shares this vision and I am thrilled to see it spelled out so clearly in her platform.

Let's all pray for Catherine that God will give her wisdom and strength for the new responsibilities she has taken on.

Sermon for October 14th: Luke 17:11-19

How to be Made Whole

When Bishop Jack Sperry was translating the Gospels into the Copper Eskimo dialect he had to improvise quite a few words when there was no direct Inuktitut equivalent for the familiar English term. In one of those cases, however, the word he used was closer to the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek than the English word. The Hebrew word ‘shalom’ and the Greek word ‘eirene’ are usually translated by the English word ‘peace’, but in fact in the original languages they mean far more than ‘the absence of war’. The Inuktitut word that Jack chose was the word ‘naamangnik’, which could roughly be translated as ‘a state of being okay’, and this is very close to the original meaning, which is ‘a state of untroubled, undisturbed well-being’.

Today in our society there is a great hunger for ‘naamangnik’ - ‘a state of being okay’. As a society we seem to have not just an awareness of disease but an awareness of ‘dis-ease’. At the level of physical illness there is the spread of AIDS all over the world and especially in Africa, where so many families have been decimated by it. There is the increase in heart disease and other illnesses, many of which are related to our unhealthy diet and the fact that we are so much more sedentary than we were even fifty years ago. And of course if we go beyond the physical to the area of mental and emotional health, we know that there has been an explosion of stories about abuse and family disfunctionality. Twelve-Step groups and other groups to help people in recovery are mushrooming throughout our society. All of this tells us that there is a great hunger for healing and wholeness. And we haven’t even begun to talk about people’s fears around the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

Today’s Gospel deals with the idea of being made whole. In the Greek language there is another word, ‘sozo’, which has a very broad range of meanings - it can mean ‘to save’, ‘to rescue from danger’, ‘to make well’, ‘to make whole’. The interesting thing about this is that, although in our reading for today ten lepers are ‘made clean’ or ‘healed’, only one is described by Jesus as being ‘made well’ or ‘made whole’ using this word ‘sozo’. In other words, nine get the healing they asked for, but one gets more than he asked for. Jesus’ work in his life goes deeper. Let’s take a closer look at the story and try to figure this out.

The word ‘leprosy’ as it is used in the Bible covers not only what we now call ‘Hansen’s Disease’ but also many other skin diseases, some of which were highly contagious. These diseases were seen at the time of Jesus as being a sign of God’s curse; people would ask as they do today, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ The sufferer was required by law to leave town, to wear their clothes in a dishevelled state, and to cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’, whenever they saw someone approaching. So the disease isolated people from their families and their communities, and also from God who was seen as being angry with them. If by some chance their disease was cured, they had to go to a priest at the Temple; he would then certify their cure and offer a sacrifice on their behalf.

The ten lepers in our story today had grouped together in a colony as they often did in those days. We can imagine them staying close to a road so that they could beg, but also keeping their distance as the law required. When they saw Jesus they cried out, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ In response to their cry, Jesus challenged them to an act of faith before they received their healing. Without doing anything about their condition he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’, and we’re told that as they went, they were made clean’. Rather like Indiana Jones, who in the Last Crusade had to step out from the edge of a precipice before he saw the invisible bridge, they had to step out in faith and trust that God would honour their faith.

In the Gospels Jesus often asks people to act on faith before they have evidence to support it. In the second chapter of John, when he turns the water into wine, the servants are asked to take it to the master of the feast while it is still water - only on the way is it turned to wine. Peter is asked to step out in faith and walk on the water even though the evidence tells him that it won’t support his weight. And in Mark 11:24 Jesus says to his disciples ‘Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’.

Of course, this approach is very common in other areas of our life. We don’t wait until we’ve learned to swim before trying to swim; rather, we learn to swim by swimming. We don’t wait until we’ve learned how to be married before we get married; rather, we learn to live as married people by living as married people! In these cases, you don’t wait for the evidence of your eyes before you act; if you did, you’d never act.

But this is very difficult for us when it comes to the area of prayer and faith. And we also have to recognise the fact that, although in the Gospels 100% of those who came to Jesus were healed, even in the rest of the New Testament this is not the case. Paul prayed for the sick to be healed and they often were, but he prayed to be healed himself on three occasions and his request was not granted. I don’t know about you, but when I come to the Lord for help and healing and he asks me for faith, the best I can do is often to say with the man in the Gospels ‘I believe - help my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24). And I take courage from the fact that that man’s prayer was granted too!

So ten lepers came to be healed, Jesus invited them to act on their faith in him, and all ten were healed. Nonetheless, Jesus doesn’t say to all of them ‘Your faith has saved you’ or ‘made you whole’; that’s only said to one of them. So let’s go on to look at the one who came back, and what we can learn from him.

When I was living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, people in financial difficulty would frequently come to me for help. Often those who came were not church members, but they knew that Christians were supposed to help the poor and I guess I was the most visible Christian in the community so they came to me! When I could, I would help them, and often that was the end of it; I didn’t see them again until the next time they needed some money.

There are people in the world who treat God like that. They don’t come to God primarily to get to know him and to learn his ways. Rather, there is something specific that they want from God; if they get what they’re asking for, they’re happy, but if they don’t, they might be angry or upset. In neither case, however, does it go any deeper than that. This is the situation with these nine lepers; they came to Jesus to be healed, and they got what they wanted from him. Only one of them was different. There are two things about him that are unique.

Firstly, he is a Samaritan. In other words, he is a descendant of a group of people who were brought into Israel after most of the Jews of the northern kingdom were exiled to Assyria in the eighth century B.C. These people intermarried with the Jews that were left, and as the years went by they became a mixed race whose religion had some elements of Judaism but some foreign elements as well. The Judeans saw them as heretics and foreigners and didn’t allow them to enter into the Temple in Jerusalem and offer sacrifice there; they were excluded.

The second unique thing about this man is that, alone among the ten lepers, he comes back and offers thanks to God at the feet of Jesus. And what does this mean? To ask for something, to receive it and then not to offer thanks - surely that is to devalue the relationship. It shows that you’re only interested in the gift, not the giver. But to come back and say ‘thank you’ is to show that you value not just the gift but the giver as well.

But there’s even more to it than that. The lepers were sent to the Temple to show themselves to the priests and to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for their cure. But this Samaritan leper recognised that, if God was working through Jesus to bring him healing, then it was more appropriate to offer thanks to God at the feet of Jesus than at the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a recognition that God is working uniquely in and through Jesus. This Samaritan leper didn’t just want a healing; he also wanted a relationship with God - the God who he had thought was angry with him, but who he had now discovered loved him and wanted to help him. And he recognised that the way to enter into a relationship with that God was through Jesus.

Let’s try to connect this with our own lives.

Many of us start out in the Christian life because we want something from God. That was true in New Testament times, too; in fact, in the Gospels Jesus sometimes says to people ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ So it’s legitimate for us to want God to do something for us! We come to him and we say, ‘Lord, I want you to fix my marriage’ or ‘heal my cancer’ or ‘help me to be a better parent’ or ‘take away my loneliness’ or ‘fear’ or whatever. And Jesus doesn’t frown on us for coming with these requests; he encourages it. This is a common starting point in the Christian journey.

So we come and make our request; then what happens? Well, perhaps we receive what we’re asking for: a healing, or a miraculous intervention that causes some dramatic change in our circumstances. What happens after this? You would think that receiving this kind of help would make such an impression on us that we would want to get to know God better; we’d want to live in relationship with God and learn how to follow Jesus. And sometimes this does happen - but not always. I know of people who have received God’s miraculous help, sometimes including dramatic healings, and yet have gone on to turn away from God. So the fact that we receive a healing doesn’t guarantee that we then go on to grow in our relationship with God.

On the other hand, perhaps we don’t receive what we’re asking for. Suffering is a mystery and we often don’t understand why some prayers get a ‘yes’ answer and some don’t. We don’t have all the answers. All we know is that sometimes when we pray, we don’t get what we ask for. And then what happens? Some people turn away from God in bitterness and anger, but some continue to follow Christ anyway, trusting that he knows best.

In other words, whether or not we receive a healing often has nothing to do with whether or not we’re made whole or well in the deeper sense. In order for us to find real wholeness, it’s necessary for us to do what the Samaritan did - to go beyond the gift to the giver. We have to go beyond loving God for the sake of what he can give us, and begin to learn to love God for his own sake. Because we won’t find true wholeness or wellness until we stop thinking of ourselves, and start thinking about God and God’s will for us.

The earliest Christian confession of faith was the simple statement ‘Jesus is Lord’. That’s what the Samaritan was saying by prostrating himself at the feet of Jesus. And when we follow Jesus as Lord - when we re-order our lives around him, around his Gospel and his teachings - that’s when we find true wholeness, true ‘naamangnik’, ‘a state of being okay’.

So let me close by asking you – when it comes to God, are you more interested in the gift, or in the giver? Are you following Jesus primarily for what he can give you, or are you on the road of a deeper obedience, loving Jesus for who he is, and learning to reshape your entire life around his kingdom and his will?

Today in this service we are going to come to God with our requests, in the confidence that those requests are welcome. Jesus encourages us to come and ask! So let’s pray boldly, putting our trust in the one who is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine, the heavenly Father who loves to give good gifts to his children.

But let’s not stop with that. Jesus longs for us to go further than that; to go beyond seeking the gift and to seek the giver as well. So let’s put our lives in his hands as our Saviour and Master and commit ourselves to following him in faithful obedience every day. That is the way to experience, in the deepest parts of our being, the wholeness that is his will for us.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Doug's blog

Ten days ago our friend and stalwart lay-reader Doug MacNeill had a nasty accident that left his shoulder in five pieces.

Doug has started a blog to let us know how his recovery is going. Why not drop by and wish him well? You can find the link here.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Farewell Photo for Bishop Matthews

Taken between the services on Sunday September 23rd with members of both 9.00 and 10.30 congregations present. This photo will be sent to the Diocese to be included on Bishop Matthews' farewell DVD.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sermon for October 7th: John 6:35

Soul Food

One of the most successful publishing phenomena of recent years has been a series of books entitled Chicken Soup for the Soul. These books had their beginning in the work of two motivational speakers, Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen. Canfield and Hansen were in the habit of sprinkling their motivational talks with a liberal dose of inspirational stories, and many people in their audiences suggested to them that they should publish these stories. Eventually they decided to act on this suggestion and they collected 101 stories for publication. The original title came from Jack Canfield’s grandmother who apparently claimed that her homemade chicken soup would cure anything!

The manuscript of Chicken Soup for the Soul was refused by no less than 140 different publishing houses before being accepted by Health Communications, Inc. It was published in June 1993, and by Christmas had become a huge favourite. By April 1994 it was at the top of all the bestseller lists in the United States and Canada, and it went on to win many awards including the prestigious American Booksellers Book of the Year award. The original book has since given birth to many children with names like Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul or the Fisherman’s Soul and so on. Altogether there have been 65 titles which have been published in 37 languages and have sold 80 million copies.

So I think it’s safe to say that in our culture we instinctively understand the idea of a hungry soul! We understand that it’s not just our bodies that need food, but our minds and hearts as well. And junk food won’t do – we need deep nourishment from something wholesome and solid.

Many people today are painfully aware that they are not finding that nourishment. A British newspaper columnist made these observations:
Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it… it aches.

I suspect that many of us will resonate with this columnist’s words. Many of us are looking for spiritual nourishment and know deep down that we haven’t been able to find it yet.

We never get enough money and possessions to satisfy our hunger. You know what happens: as our income grows, so do our expectations. Tim’s law about standard of living says, ‘Lifestyle will always expand to fill available income’! At first we were satisfied with a small house, but we soon get tired of that and want something larger. We aren’t content with one car any more; we want two, with four-wheel drive, GPS, and TV in the back seats. Things that twenty years ago were seen as luxuries are now necessities. And so it goes on. We never have enough, and no matter how much we have, the ache inside doesn’t go away.

We never get enough pleasure to satisfy our hunger. It’s a common experience with drug addicts that, whereas they began using drugs to be able to feel good, eventually they find they have to use them just to feel normal. They no longer get the same buzz from the drugs that they did at the beginning; they need more, and yet more, and so it goes on until one day they overdose and that’s the end for them.

We can never find a close enough relationship to satisfy our hunger. I have been blessed in my life with some wonderful long-term friendships and a marriage which has been a tremendous gift from God, but I have to say that, even though these relationships have been fulfilling, there’s still a lonely place in me that they don’t touch. And that’s not the fault of those relationships; no human relationship can touch that place. It’s not meant for human beings; Someone Else has reserved it for himself.

I would even go on to say that we can never get enough church to satisfy our hunger! You might think that as Christians the place we should be able to expect ultimate satisfaction is our church, but even in church people often come away feeling empty inside. I know of people who have been going to church for years - all their lives, even - but who have admitted to me that inside they feel a desperate emptiness and they don’t know how to fill it.

I’ve noticed that in our family there is a rather strange idea about what it means to be full. I’ve noticed that people will say, “I’m full” at the end of main course, but then when dessert comes around they miraculously have room again! When I ask about this, I’m told, “Well, you can be full of meat and potatoes and still have room for ice cream – everyone knows that!” And in the same way, we human beings can be full to the point of satiation with material and relational goodies, but still experience this empty place at a deeper level inside us.

Jesus says in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. This is an audacious claim. What Jesus is saying is “I am what you’ve been looking for all your life. I’m the one who will finally satisfy your deep inner hunger and thirst”. Why does he say that?

We think we’re longing for more things or more pleasure or deeper relationships, but those things are just surface concerns. Deep down inside, what we’re really longing for is a genuine relationship with the living God. All these other things and people in our lives are gifts from God, and today we want to give thanks to God for them all. But these things aren’t able to do God’s job in our lives, and if we ask them to do God’s job we end up making them false gods.

St. Paul tells us ‘God...reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). In other words, Jesus is the go-between who brings us into a genuine relationship with the living God. And this relationship with the living God is our spiritual sustenance, our nourishment; this is where we get the resources to live our lives and to cope with the things that come our way day by day. Only this can satisfy our inner hunger and thirst. Chicken Soup is not enough. We need God, and if we don’t have God, nothing else can take his place.

How do we experience this for ourselves? Later on in the chapter Jesus uses some pretty graphic language about what’s asked of us. He says “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:53-54).

These verses are a metaphorical way of describing the spiritual reality of nourishing our souls on Jesus. Let me illustrate. We might be in a great crowd of people, all starving to death. We might be brought into a room where there is an enormous table piled high with the most sumptuous banquet we have ever seen in our lives. We can smell the wonderful smells; our mouths are watering in anticipation; we might laugh and clap one another on the backs and say “We’ve been saved! We’re not going to starve!” But neither this good news, nor the sight or smell of the food, is going to help us unless we each of us step forward, pick up some of the food, and eat.

And it’s the same in our relationship with Jesus. We can hear about him, we can read his message in the Scriptures, we can come week by week to the house in which his story is told and celebrated - we can do all this, but unless we step forward and personally appropriate what he has done for us, we will still be hungry inside. That’s what this symbolic language about ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ is all about. This is what Jesus wants us to do, and he tells us how to do it in verse 35: ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. This is the language of trust and of personal relationship.

But some people will say “I’m a Christian and I still feel that hunger inside; why is that?” They might say, “I’ve been baptised” or, “I’ve accepted Jesus as my personal Saviour - aren’t I supposed to be finished with this hunger?”

Well, let’s take another illustration, this time from marriage. Someone might come to me and say, “I thought marriage was supposed to take away my loneliness. I got married; why do I still feel lonely?” And I might respond by asking him some questions: “Well, do you and your wife ever sit down and have a good long conversation with each other? Do you ever go out for coffee and give each other your complete attention? Do you do fun things together? Do you learn what pleases the other and try to do it?” And he might look at me with a mystified expression on his face and say “No - I didn’t know I was supposed to do those things, and anyway we both work twelve hour days with an hour’s commute each way, and there’s no time for them”. To which I would respond, “There’s your problem. A wedding alone won’t take away your loneliness; marriage is meant to be an every day, growing relationship”.

And it’s the same with our relationship with God. Jesus wants to lead us into a daily walk with God and with our fellow-believers; it’s not going to work if we’re only prepared to give it the leftovers of our time. Do you take time to pray regularly, by yourself, or with your spouse or family or fellow-believers? Do you listen to God’s voice in the scriptures and come together with your brothers and sisters in Christ to study the Bible? Do you turn to Jesus in moments of need and in moments of joy? When you’re faced with a decision, do you ask him to make his will known? You see, we don’t just ‘Come to him’ and ‘believe in him’ once; we need a daily coming and believing if we’re to enjoy all the benefits he promises us.

Today, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we give thanks to God for all our blessings. We thank him for our daily food and drink, for shelter and transportation, for safety in a world where many live in daily danger. We thank God for our families and friends and all those we love. We thank God for our jobs and for our leisure activities. All these things are blessings from a generous Creator.

But even though we enjoy these blessings, we don’t expect them to satisfy that deepest hunger in our souls. Jesus alone is the Bread of Life; only he can provide us with food that will never perish. And of course the Holy Communion is a vivid picture of this. It’s easy to put our faith in Jesus when we receive Communion. As we stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ and stretch out our physical hands to receive the bread and wine, we simply stretch out the hands of our faith to Jesus at the same time. We may not feel that our own faith is very strong, and that’s why it’s so important for us to stand together with others who can help us when we’re faltering. Together, we look to Jesus as our true and living Bread. As he invites us in verse 35, so we come to him and we put our trust in him.

And then, when we leave this place, we’re invited to live in that relationship all week long, together with our sisters and brothers in Christ. We’re invited to trust him in every experience we have during the week, to consult him in every decision, to turn to him in every need. In this way, and this way only, will our spiritual hunger be satisfied with food that will never perish.