A New Lifestyle–Aug. 31/14

What are we here for?  It can’t simply be for bragging rights – I am a part of a church community; I go to church every Sunday; and it isn’t because God grants us fire insurance if we show up.  God didn’t make the Church so that we could feel good about ourselves, having done our duty joining worship each week; He didn’t make the Church so that we could get together with a bunch of nice people and learn to be nicer.  The Church is here as the firstfruits of Christ’s Kingdom which is breaking upon the world since Jesus walked it; the Church is here as the place where the standard of faith and knowledge of God is taught and learned; the Church is here to teach us to be good – not “nice,” but holy (the kind of “good” that God is).  One of the Church Fathers noted that though we were once babies, children, youths, then adults, we may never yet have been good.  Holiness of living takes transformation, which takes time.

More recently, the puritan divine George Swinnock commented that: “The upright soul is constant in his profession, and does not change his behaviour according to his companions.  Oh that I might never, through shame or fear, disown Him who has already acknowledged me!”  Today we’ll explore the question of what our identity in Christ, in whom we are known – as we have been known by Him; the question of what our identity in Him does to our way of living.  The Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, Abraham Kruyper, put it like this: “Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatever it may be, constantly before the face of his God.  He is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.”

The starting point for Christian living is always in Jesus – always in God.  God’s side of the equation is the starting point, from which our side of the equation is inspired.  The constancy of God’s love and care for us is what our faithfulness toward Him is based in.  Richard Hooker, author of the captivating 5 volumes on church polity, offered this (on the mutuality of our faithfulness): “The earth may shake, the pillars of the world may tremble under us, the countenance of the heaven may be appalled, the sun may lose his light, the moon her beauty, the stars their glory; but concerning the man that trusts in God…what is there in the world that shall change his heart, overthrow his faith, alter his affection towards God, or the affection of God to him?”  We declared, in our psalm this morning, the words of the psalmist, whose own faithfulness to God was based in his conviction of God’s faithfulness to him.

The starting place for living in faith is always God’s faithfulness to us.  Where do we go from there, though?  What makes the difference between being a person who is loved by God and loves Him in return, and a person who does something about it?  What can be done about loving God?  You love your spouse so you treat to dinner, bring home flowers or chocolate; you love your children so you provide all they need; you love your parents so you honour them in life and in death; you love bbq, so you visit it often.  We know what to do about our love in all of these cases, but what do you do about loving God, and what makes the difference that actually makes that happen?  The difference comes from knowing Him.

Thomas a Kempis, the midiaeval mystic, suggested: “Plant in the garden of your memory, the tree of the holy Cross; it produces a very efficacious medicine against all the suggestions of the devil.  Of this most noble and fertile tree, the root is humility and poverty; the bark, labour and penitence; the branches, mercy and justice; the leaves, true honour and modesty; the scent, sobriety and abstinence; the beauty, chastity and obedience; the splendour, right faith and firm hope; the strength, magnanimity and patience; the length, long-suffering and perseverance; the breadth, benignity and concord; the height, charity and wisdom; the sweetness, love and joy; the fruit, salvation and life eternal.”  Knowing God is transformative.

Some people say that we should look for God in others, but I say that you can’t see someone you don’t know.  You can’t recognize them.  But when we know God, when He starts transforming us, our eyes are opened.  A preacher spoke about Heaven, and was approached by a wealthy member of his congregation: “Pastor, you preached a good sermon about Heaven.  You told me all about it, but you did not tell me where Heaven is.”  “Ah,” said the pastor, “I’m glad of the opportunity this morning.  I have just come from down the street.  In a particular house you’ll find a member of your church who is extremely poor; she is sick and in bed with fever.  If you will go, and bring her groceries, and say, ‘My sister, I have brought this in the Name of our Lord and Saviour,’ if you ask for a Bible and read the 23rd Psalm, and then get down on your knees and pray – if you don’t see Heaven, before you finish, I’ll reimburse you for the groceries.”  The next morning the man returned to his pastor and said, “I saw Heaven, and I spent fifteen minutes there, as certainly as you’re standing before me now.”

The difference comes from knowing God – knowing whom we’re to recognize, whom we’re seeking after.  Moses had every excuse for not doing what God wanted, he was making them up on the fly (we didn’t hear all of them this morning), but he came face to face with God; he came to know God, and to know that God knew him; God told him His Name.  It changed history.

And for us, because we are known by God and accepted by Him, our lives, our living, our worlds, our world, can change.  When we’ve already received our full reward from God, in Christ, we are freed to live for others.  Teresa of Avila urged Christians to see themselves as the servants of all, which is what Jesus Himself told His disciples will make a person great in His Kingdom.  There’s a connection there that I want you to make, this morning: the Church is the firstfruits of God’s Kingdom springing forth in the world, and to be great here we must serve others – not ourselves.

And the idea of fruit ripening is an important one, when we speak of firstfruits.  If we liken Christian living to a plant growing, then good works – service to others – is not the root of the plant, but the fruit.  As I said, the root is in God’s faithfulness to us; knowing Him is like the stalk that grows from His faithfulness; service to others is the fruit that develops from that stalk.  If our service to others is spoiled fruit, then we need to look at the root and stalk – perhaps we’re already sick in one of these foundational areas.  Do we really trust in God’s faithfulness?  Do we really strive to know Him more, and better?

So the key to this is real transformation, authentic transformation.  The kind of transformed living that St. Francis meant when he said, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  You can’t fake that kind of authenticity.  There was a Presbyterian minister named James Bryan who commonly came home overcoat-less, having given his to someone who had none.  One day he was driving a horse and buggy – just so you know the time this took place – and he saw a farmer standing in the field.  It was time for spring plowing, but his horse had died.  The pastor unhitched his horse, gave it to the man, and walked home.  When a biography was written about him, it was called Sermon in Shoes.  Whereas, I fear that sometimes we take St. Francis’ injunction, to only use words when necessary to preach the Gospel, as an excuse to neither preach the Gospel either by our living or our words.

There’s something about a story like that of James Bryan that has a ring of authenticity, isn’t there?  It’s not just a “going through the motions” kind of life.  Not just words, but putting money where the mouth is.  Sometimes Christians become so insular, focused on their own persons – but we have far greater work to do than merely securing our own salvation, which, by the way, Christ has already secured for us.  Richard Baxter, the English puritan, observed that “we are trusted with our Master’s talents for His service, in our places to do our best to share His truth, and grace, and Church…to honour His cause and edify His flock, and further the salvation of as many as we can.  All this is to be done on earth…”

But it’s easier to just go through the motions, isn’t it?  I think that’s because it doesn’t take real commitment or real investment.  You can’t be heartbroken when an effort you’ve been going-through-the-motions with doesn’t come to fruition.  Prophets in the Old Testament were not always quick to commit.  We saw part of Moses’ discourse this morning.  Jeremiah thought he was too young; Ezekiel wouldn’t be listened to; Isaiah lived among unclean people.  All of these had reasons why “they” couldn’t do it.  Which was God’s point – that He could do it; that success wasn’t what they’d always thought it was.  But it’s hard to commit to something that doesn’t depend on you for success, isn’t it?  You can’t control the outcome – and we like to be in control.

But, again, that’s the point.  We can’t control the outcome.  Which is why the whole enterprise of Christianity, and of Christian living (as a sub-heading under that) is based in and rests upon God’s faithfulness first and above all else.  Not our own.  He cleansed Isaiah; He raised Jeremiah up; He gave Ezekiel a hard head to butt against others’; He gave Moses His Name.  It starts with Him, and success is measured in doing what He asks, not on how others respond to it.

Jesus said to seek His Kingdom first – again, the Church is the firstfruits of His Kingdom as it breaks in on earth.  We, who are a part of it, should be doing this!  Seek His Kingdom first, and all those other things that He knows we need will be added to us.  It begins, not with our seeking, but with our trusting His faithfulness – which precedes our response to it.  C. S. Lewis said it two ways: if we put first things first then we’ll get second things thrown in; if we put second things first then we’ll get neither…; and, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”  No going through the motions!

What this takes is that we would take God seriously.  He doesn’t want a bunch of people who are basically good people, in comparison to other people, and usually just meaning that they’re “nice” – which is not, by the way, a moral evaluation of a person, but simply a statement that a person is more committed to not offending anyone than they are to having any view of something worth standing for.  Taking God seriously, and thus committing one’s living to Him.  He isn’t looking for a bunch of people who were baptized, and He isn’t looking for a bunch of people who came back again to ‘get’ confirmed.  He’s looking for people who will commit the way they live their lives to Him.  St. Basil of Caesarea said of Christians, and perhaps you’ll find the imagery reminiscent of runners in a race, “It is not he who begins well who is perfect.  It is he who ends well who is approved in God’s sight.”

What does that kind of commitment look like?  I think we’ve heard some examples this morning.  I think we’ve got some examples among us and around us.  The Duke of Wellington held that “British soldiers are not braver than French soldiers, they are only brave for five minutes longer.”  That’s the kind of stick-to-it commitment that God desires of us.  He doesn’t mean for us to be so much more incredibly committed to him than to all of the other things that we commit ourselves to, but He means for us to hold to our commitment to Him, unlike so many of the passing fads that we commit to from time-to-time.

Some of you know that I started my university studies in a music programme, playing piano.  Expectations for practising were at least two hours a day, every day (even the lesson day!).  If I missed a day, I knew it.  But if I had hit six out of seven, then maybe the teacher didn’t notice.  If I missed two days, though, she did.  And if I missed three days a week, well, everyone did.  We cannot live as Christians if we do not commit ourselves to the daily practise of Christ’s presence in our lives, and to living in faith to Him that is grounded in His faith to us.  If we do, it will transform our lives, as we know Him more and more, and better and better.  It will transform our church; our city; our country; our world.  We are called to be agents of transformation, transformation that begins in each of us and plays itself out in our way of living.  Amen.

United in Christ Jesus

This last Sunday I felt led to begin a six-week sermon series on the new identity that Christ gives to us, His people (as opposed to the identity that we make for ourselves).  Here is the first week’s instalment.

Someone said that if there’s something wrong with your church community, we might each begin by looking in the mirror.  Is our congregation unfriendly?  Let me look into my mirror: “Mirror?  Mirror on the wall!” am I unfriendly?  Is our congregation unconcerned about people who don’t know Jesus?  Am I?  Is our congregation behind on its budget?  What about me – am I behind in my giving?  Is there hostility in our fellowship, between members?  What is my attitude like? what is my behaviour communicating to others?

Now, for any number of us there may not be answers to those questions in the mirror.  Sometimes the problems really do lie with other members of the community – but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less a problem that each of us owns.  Because God has brought us together.  A manager of a business was interviewing a potential new employee who asked, “How many people work here?”  To which he replied, “Precious few!”  Such a statement should never be made of God’s Church.  Every one of us is here by His grace; every one of us is a representative of His transformative purpose in the world; every one of us owns the witness and ministry of this congregation – this portion of His Church.

Gaze up, if you will, and view this incredible stained glass window that we have at the front of our worship space.  The triune God is depicted on it, and St. Luke, and St. Stephen.  There are a lot of pieces that make that one window – many pieces of glass, different sizes and shapes and colours.  They’re all pieced together in just the right way that a beautiful mosaic appears.  A mosaic that draws our hearts and minds to God.  A mosaic that light shines through.  In some ways, it’s a picture of our congregation gathered today, isn’t it?  People from different walks of life – different ways of employing our time, different ages, different upbringing – God has put us all together to produce the beautiful mosaic that He has in mind, to draw others to Himself as He shines His light through us into a dark world.  And He does shine through us to other people, because Jesus is about all people – not just the ones who are already gathering in His Name.

Our gospel lesson today told the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus to beg for healing for her daughter.  Jesus told her that He’d been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  How easy it would have been to stick to that external, and to have ignored the internal – to say that she was born into the wrong family, and so stood outside of grace!  Yet Jesus never ignored the internal, and when she exhibited the kind of faith that He’d been searching for and inspiring in the lost sheep of the house of Israel, He didn’t ignore it.  So He stuck to His guns.  Your faith has brought healing.

But we get waylaid by the instruction rather than the principle behind it, and we divide by denomination.  There’s the story of the priest who’d been asked to officiate at the funeral for a Baptist man.  He inquired of his bishop as to how he should perceive.  The response he got was this: “By all means!  Bury as many Baptists as you can!”  John Wesley rightly asked: “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union; yet need it prevent our union in affection?  Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?  May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”  Indeed, if we Christians are always bickering with one another, aren’t we denying Christ, the Prince of Peace, who has called us into His one Church, and who prayed in the garden, the night before He was crucified, that we would all be one?

But we get distracted from faith in Christ by loyalty to faction, even within our local congregations; we forget loyalty to Jesus and being open to the work of the Spirit to move us to the holiness of God, and we settle for the way of the world: we preach sermons against gossip and then turn around singing “I Love to Tell the Story,” sharing everyone’s story but Jesus’.  We forget to welcome others into Christ’s fellowship because “someone” needs to do something about the shingles on the roof – there was one man who was approached by the ushers at his church because he hadn’t taken his hat off for worship that day.  His response was telling, “Praise the Lord!  I’ve been coming here for six months and you’re the first people to speak to me.  I figured that would do it!”

We forget to be hospitable, because we’re concerned with what so-and-so is, or is not, doing for us.  We hold grudges against people that Jesus died to redeem.  How easy would it have been for Joseph to disown his brothers?  They’d disowned him years earlier, selling him into slavery (which was, in their estimation, the least they could do for him – considering that he was their brother) which had led him to prison for a crime he hadn’t committed.  In our Old Testament lesson today, they stood before him and he had the power to do anything to them that he wanted.  He could have disowned them, as they had done to him.  He could have practised “eye for an eye” retributive justice on them.  He could have mocked their attempts to get rid of him, because he’d ended up rising beyond anything he’d even dreamed of.  Instead, he turned his mind to God’s purposes – they’d intended evil, but God had used it for good.  They would be saved from the famine on the land, and all their families.

There were a handful of Lutheran pastors who’d decided to “check out” the competition, going to Saturday night mass at the local Roman Catholic church.  They arrived a little late, and found that all of the pews were filled – so they stood at the back.  The priest noticed them and recognized them, and whispered to one of the altar boys, “Go and get three chairs for our Lutheran friends.”  The boy didn’t hear, so the priest spoke a bit louder, motioning to the rear of the congregation, “Three chairs for the Lutherans.”  Dutifully, the altar boy rose and proclaimed to the congregation, who responded as prompted, “Three cheers for the Lutherans!”

Now, something tells me that three “Hip hip hurray!”s (or “Huzzah!”s) would make newcomers feel very out-of-place at our churches, and wouldn’t be a great way to welcome them in.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good way to welcome people in.  But welcoming people begins with having something to welcome them into.  And having that “something” begins with the unity of the Church.

A piano tuner doesn’t tune each piano to the one that he tuned before it.  He tunes each one, individually, to his tuning fork.  So it is with the Church.  We are not called to factions, or to interest groups, or to follow in one another’s footsteps.  We are called to Jesus, and to have our lives tuned to His.  Believe it or not, when our lives are all attuned to His – instead of trying to attune them with one another’s – we will have greater unity in the Body.  We will actually be in tune with one another.

Seek Christ, who reveals Himself to you, that you may be fit into the wonderful mosaic of His Church which He is building – fashioning us into a great stained glass window, through which His light shines in this dark world.  Amen.

Plato’s Cave?

This week I’m on retreat.  I’m not running away from a battle, but I’m taking some “me” time.  The church recommends these periodically, and provides outlets.  This week the clergy of my diocese (Qu’Appelle) and of the Diocese of Saskatoon are at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre in Lumsden, SK.  Our guest speaker is Bishop Mark MacDonald, and it will prove to be a great retreat.

The Lord has inspired me in a couple of ways since leaving Swift Current today.  I’m not sure if it’s the music I was listening to (my friend Keith Kitchen is my travel companion), or the events of the last few days, or just God’s initiative (which it ultimately relies on, whatever other factors may have paved the way for Him to inspire…), but I’m sharing one thing now.  The other isn’t ready just yet.  Only He knows what else might come, in time.

I was always struck by Plato’s Cave.  If you’re unfamiliar, it’s in The Republic.  Basically, humanity is tied in a cave, and all that people can see is shadows on a wall, being generated by people carrying things past a fire that’s burning at some location behind them.  The philosopher is the human who has broken free from the cave and found a tunnel to the surface.  Upon seeing what things really are, in daylight, he returns to the cave and tries to share with the people there what he has come to learn.  They are resistant to his “new” knowledge, and generally prefer the darkness and the names and items they have imagined from the shadows.  That’s a pretty rough paraphrase, but it will have to function for us just now.  There was always something about that story that seemed to resonate with me, but there was always something missing, something “off” about it, from the reality that I’ve come to know through the Christian faith.

Humanity is trapped in an Imax theatre.  The giant screen in front of them makes them think that they’re travelling, makes them think that they’re interacting with the truth, makes them think that they’re living life.  But they’re deceived.  The truth is that they’re prisoners, and their life is a mirage.  There is a way out of the theatre, and one man, Jesus, who has come in via that way can lead them out.  If they’ll follow Him.  He’ll take them out, if they’ll give up their theatre seats.  Real life, all of the things flashed in front of them on the screen, exists outside of the theatre.  Jesus came into the theatre so that they might have real life, not the mockery of it that the theatre seduces them into.  Many don’t listen to Him: the things He’s describing seem so much like the things they already see before their eyes – isn’t He just imagining something more?  Many don’t listen to Him: the theatre seat they’re in is so comfortable, what if they get up and someone else takes it – or, worse yet, it gets cold (nobody likes sitting in a cold chair!)?

The question before each of us is this: will we go with Him, or will we stay in the theatre?  There is no other way.

Isaiah 64, this morning

I don’t know where you are, today.  Where I am it is snowing.  And blowing.  It’s not nice.  And I know that when I get home, there’s going to be a ridiculous amount of shoveling to do, because I live on a corner on top of a hill and the snow drifts are huge whenever there’s a wind.  We’re looking at –39 Celsius for Sunday.

But here I am, at the office.  It’s somewhat warm, and somewhat calm.  There’s the regular bustle throughout the building, people setting up for communion tomorrow (no, I don’t mean for Sunday – there’s a funeral tomorrow and they’ll set up for Sunday after that); the secretary’s running off and folding bulletins; people visiting, as they should.  At morning prayer this morning I found myself reading Isaiah 64 (as the title might have suggested to you).  A familiar chapter.

Isaiah 64 was a part of our Advent Lessons & Carols service.  It speaks to the desire of God’s people for Him to reveal Himself, to make Himself known, to “tear open the heavens and come down.”  Following a confession of baseness, this extraordinary exclamation is made: “Yet, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our Potter; we are all the work of Your hand.” (v. 8).  I am struck, this morning, with the pliability of clay.

The “So what?” of this chapter is in clay’s pliability.  It doesn’t matter if you know that God is the Potter, and you the clay.  It doesn’t matter if you consider being pliable in God’s hand to be a virtuous way of being.  Actually being pliable in God’s hand… that’s a different matter altogether.  That’s what matters.

There’s a strong temptation to be our own masters; to control our own lives: what options are open to us, what paths we take, what destiny we choose; to be self-made men and women; to earn all that we can, and to get what we deserve.  Where is the person who will accept God’s plan for them, and make His will their own?  Where is the person who will seek, not what they deserve (in God’s mercy, they are spared it), but, His Kingdom?  Where is the person who will submit to Him as the Lord of their life?  Where is the person who will be workable clay in His hand?

John Wesley, as I remember, figured that if he had one hundred people who feared nothing but sin and desired nothing but God, then he could change the world.  I figure that if God had one hundred such people, then He could.  Where can such people be found?

A Proverb Reflection

Clearly I’m not real ‘blogger’ material – I rarely post, let alone daily, and even with something that’s supposed to be a series I am sporadic in my posts, at best.  At any rate, here’s another kick-at-the-can:

The sun loses nothing by shining into a puddle.

The logical truth of this proverb seems obvious.  The sun affects the puddle; the puddle has no effect on the sun.  Consider, briefly, what the sun does effect on the puddle, though.  A puddle is, generally, water.  It can sometimes be murky or muddy.  Whatever its state, however, the sun has the same effect – to lighten or brighten the water.  The murkiness of the water may determine how deep the light penetrates into its depths, but if we’re talking about a puddle and not a lake/sea/ocean, then I don’t think it’s a real factor.  The puddle reflects the light, also, even as the light penetrates it.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye.  Proverbs are useless if they only describe something that science could just as easily describe more precisely.  So what is the situation being referred to, here?  It’s hard to make a definitive answer to that kind of question.  Often there are many applicable situations to such a thing.  But here’s what it makes me think of:

Jesus.  He had this thing about cleanliness – about the outside and the inside.  Remember?  What’s outside doesn’t make a person unclean, but what’s inside.  He regularly touched people who were regarded as unclean, and His rule-of-thumb with that was that rather than being made unclean by them His purity was rubbing off on them.  So rather than the sun being darkened by the puddle, the puddle was enlightened by the sun.  But it takes a proper understanding of what the mud, and the light, is.

Consider, too, that you are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  He hasn’t set us ablaze to hide us under a bowl.  Matthew 5.  His holiness brings us holiness.  His light reflects off of this puddle.  He is not darkened by the endeavour in any way.  What kind of puddle are you?  It’s easy and natural for the light to reflect off of the water’s surface.  How deeply does His light penetrate you, puddle?  What is the depth of murkiness inside?