November 27, 2019

Backflips for Jesus?

So I was at a party a week ago and someone started to sing one of the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar.  I was quite surprised as she’s not a church goer, and hasn’t particularly shown a lot of interest in what I would call a big theological debate or conversation.  Yet here she was singing her favourite song – the song of Simon the Zealot ( ) “Christ you know I love you, did you see I waved? I believe in you and God so tell me that I’m saved.”  It’s a perfect example of how we do a real disservice to Jesus as mere humans.  We think it’s all about power, military or political power.  Again and again we try different ways of understanding who Jesus is for us.  What kind of king was he and more importantly, is he? 
In the movie version, the zealots want Jesus to manipulate the people into choosing violence to deal with their oppressors from Rome.  They want Jesus to twist his message to one of hate and anger.  They want him to incite riots and start a war.  They understand power to be solely political, us versus them.  A black and white world where only the strong have the right to survive and all opponents will be crushed in their crusade.  The movie shows the followers doing back flips in their excitement in hopes that Jesus will notice them.
How different that is from the scripture we read this morning.  It reads like an intimate report by someone close enough to have heard that last small conversation between three criminals executed in the most shameful, embarrassing way possible for Jewish men.  It was meant to be a deterrent, to promote obedience and quell any thoughts of rebellion.  This is what they did to traitors and other enemies of the state. Hanging on the cross in the hot sun, even their robes taken from them so all could witness that they were just scrawny weaklings.  How humiliating and disgraceful it must have felt to be treated so. 
I can imagine some soldier there listening idly to the thieves and Jesus as they waited the long hours it took for the crucifixions to kill the men.  And the thieves reacted like humans have done ever since to the idea of Jesus being someone special, someone inspiring, someone holy.  One mocks Jesus, happy perhaps to have someone to lash out against with his last dying breath.  I may be in pain, I won’t get out of it, but at least I’m not as ridiculous as you with all your talk of holiness and a new kingdom of God all touchy-feelie, lovey-dovey nonsense.
The other recognizes something different about Jesus.  Maybe it was his dignity, or his manner, or how his followers wept and witnessed to his final hours.  We don’t know.  But something about Jesus made the other thief pay attention and offer allegiance to Jesus, a dying man who had nothing to offer, no power, no control, no strength to save his own life.
I think we all face the same struggle.  Who is Jesus for us?  When I started going to church after my angry atheist stage, the last thing I wanted to think about was some weird stuff about Jesus having magical super powers, being special, being so exciting that I would want to do cartwheels and back flips.  I didn’t want some over the top, rolling on the ground experience that would leave me all open to emotional manipulation.  Not my style, and far too threatening.  The Jesus Seminar came out and some scholars tried to make Jesus just an ordinary person, only human, nothing special, just a particularly good man.  But the more I heard the stories and the more I learned and listened, the more I realized that Jesus was not just a nice man who loved people.  He had to have been a very strong man to resist over and over the temptation to become a war leader, a rebel, a politician leading a coup, a new king taking over the country by passion and propaganda and maybe even a few little secret back room deals here and there. 
He constantly resisted the temptation to save himself from his fate.  And he constantly pointed to something more powerful than Rome, more lasting than the Temple of Jerusalem, more enduring than vast armies at his beck and call.
The thief said, “Save yourself” and he resisted that.  It wasn’t about him at all.  It was about God first and foremost.  Even today we are faced with the temptation to do it all ourselves, to be strong, be tough and never ask for help.  Be independent, be full of the right answers.  This is the age of “Do it yourself” psychotherapy and spirituality.  Jesus didn’t do that.  He asked for God’s help to do what he must, to do what needed to be done, even to die on the cross.  To die as an example, a witness to a different kind of power, the kind recognized by the second thief.  The kind of power that doesn’t transform through violence or manipulation, threats or bullying, but the kind of power that gently transforms cultures and attitudes and opinions with gentleness, patience, endurance, joy and forgiveness.  The kind of power that challenges us to say to each other and ourselves words of hope and encouragement, love and forgiveness.  That kind of power transformed the Roman Empire, and transformed the way we take care of each other, the way we shape our society.  It continues to transform us, to hold us accountable to a higher standard, and to guide us into ever more loving ways of being in community.  The kind of power that never ends and continually inspires us to greater and greater deeds.  Okay, maybe not cartwheels and backflips, but something even harder, the transformation of our hearts until we can say “Jesus Remember Me when you come into your Kingdom.”

October 26, 2019

You turns - Jacob Part 5

I was travelling down a dirt road last Thursday in a rush to get to the Woodbury farm.  Some of you folks know where that is, a mere 20 minute drive away, across the river past the golf course.  Well, it’s been a few years since I had been there last and Tim was the one who drove out more often.  Anyway, I miscalculated and found the road to be muddy and slick from snow or frost or maybe a combination of both.  And I was not comfortable in driving my tiny car 80 klicks an hour.  The slower I went, the later I got and the more nervous I felt.
Just when I thought my turn-off was close, a pick-up truck whose driver was much more used to country roads than me, came barrelling down the middle, charging straight at me, scattering mud as they approached.  I was so busy trying to make sure I wouldn’t hit the truck or the ditch that I completely missed my turnoff and the next thing I knew, I was at an intersection I had never seen before, and the road ahead was marked with the ominous sign, ‘dead end!
Well, the only sensible thing to do was to pull a u-turn and retrace my steps.  It was closer than I thought and I soon was greeting old friends that I hadn’t seen in far too long!
Sometimes the only way forward is to turn around and go back the way you came.  Jacob was in that exact situation.  He had come to an impasse with Laban; after dashing away with his sheep and his wives, Laban chased him down and accused him of theft and cowardice.  The two men decided that good fences make good neighbours, to erect a stone to remind them on whose side of the border they were on and that the trickery and scams would stop between them.
That still left Jacob with the difficult quandary; where to go from here.  His uncle had scammed him repeatedly and he discovered how much that hurt.  So it was time to make a u-turn and go back to where he had come from.  That was a problem, because while Laban had scammed Jacob of wages, Jacob had scammed Esau of his rights!  Now Jacob could have tried a con, but instead he chose to be honest.  He chose to recognize that he was afraid of Esau and what his brother might do.  And that night he couldn’t sleep.
Tossing and turning about what he might face in the morning.  I imagine there are some lucky folks who never experienced that, but I have never met them.  If you are one of those lucky folks, please come teach me how!  There he was, facing every incident, every conversation he had with his brother, and coming to the realization that only the truth would set him free.  Our scriptures talk about the fruit of the Spirit being love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  One could call that being grown-up, but it is not easy to be all those things when feeling so afraid.
Jacob did what any alcoholic would do who knows their twelve steps.  Confess his life was out of control, ask God for help, then a small but not insignificant step of doing what they call an inventory of themselves, a searching exploration of all the wrongs and hurts they had dealt other people, a deep confession of their failings and shortcomings.  A vigorous wrestling with their conscious, their ego, their need to be right no matter what.  That step, which we practise in part every time we join in saying a confession on a Sunday morning, is the kind of reality check that can leave a man limping for life.  It is a constant reminder that maybe just maybe we could do better by our fellow human beings.  That maybe just maybe the con game when we pretend that we are always in the right and everyone else is wrong is just that, and the only ones we are conning are ourselves.
One psychologist says that there are two kinds of people, wise people and foolish people.  When wise people encounter something difficult, they learn from it.  They hear a truth about the world or themselves and they change because of it.  Foolish people hear a truth and ignore it or pretend it doesn’t apply to them and they don’t learn anything.  They deny, blame, or make excuses for their behaviour.  Of course the reality is that there is only one kind of person.  We are all Jacobs stuck with nights of wrestling with angels of truths.  Sometimes we listen to the angels and grow, and sometimes we ignore the angels and don’t.
I made excuses for being late.  Did you hear them?  I underestimated the time it would take to arrive, I blamed the muddy roads and the speeding truck.  All that could have been avoided if I had made an accurate assessment of the time and the weather.  Sometimes the road is bad, sometimes it’s not.  Will I learn from it, sure hope so.  But the good news is there was love and forgiveness at the end of the journey.  That was what Jacob so dearly needed from the angel.  But he didn’t just get that, he got a whole new identity, wrestling God.  No more heel grabber.  Wrestling God.  Powerful.  Sometimes wrestling with God, sometimes wrestling for God.  And it’s his name that came down the ages and still exists today in a country of independence.  Now that’s change!

October 21, 2019

Always thanking God Jacob Part 4

What do you do when you can’t get along with the inlaws?  This is no facetious question.  In the October Broadview magazine there is an article of the high cost people experience when they are estranged from their families.  Jacob became estranged from two different families in his life.  The first was his birth family after he cheated Esau and Isaac, his brother and his dad.  The second was his father-in-law Laban.  Modern readers might say that turnabout is fair play, for Jacob, the con artist, learned the hard way that it’s not fun to be conned.  
He had trusted that his father-in-law would treat him fairly, which surprises me, given how his wedding day went.  For those of you who missed last week, Jacob planned to marry Rachel, but Laban switched brides on the wedding night and Jacob got Leah instead.  It sounds like a case of fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.  And we don’t know Laban’s side of things.  Was he intimidated by this strapping young man who impressed the neighbors with his care of the livestock?  Did he notice that Jacob was able to breed sheep to whatever color was needed?  Was he impressed that Jacob was able to keep four women happy (there’s that biblical marriage from last week!) and have 11 sons?
We don’t know.  We do know that Jacob got fed up with all the shenanigans, and lost trust in Laban.  He realized that it wasn’t fun dealing with someone who would trick him at the drop of a hat whenever he felt like it.  He also recognized that even though they were family, the disrespect he was experiencing from Laban and his sons was getting to the point where he was worried about being accused of theft of the livestock.  In the bits we didn’t read, after Laban stole the speckled and spotted livestock, Jacob carefully selected what stock he would breed, and rebuilt the herd Laban had stolen. 
He ended up with a sizable striped and spotted herd and gave all the credit to God.  He wasn’t happy with what Laban did, but he was faithful to God and did not use trickery to get even with Laban.
Jacob’s resolve to play fair must have been sorely tested by all this.  He had, after all, been used to getting his own way as a child and choosing the straight and narrow is not easy.  He kept to his resolve to honor God, to trust in God and to play fair.  Be trustworthy.  Keep being thankful.
But he did something even more astonishing, certainly something that his father and his grandfather didn’t do.  He asked his wives for their opinions.  Up until now, women weren’t consulted about anything.  Sarah hadn’t had any say in where she would live when Abraham was wandering around from place to place, and Rebekah hadn’t even seen Isaac she was going to marry, only his wealth.  Jacob asked his wives what they thought before he made a final decision.  He respected their opinion and knew it would be difficult to leave their father and brothers for a one-way trip to a strange land.  They were ready to go.  They recognized that their father had seen them as only a bargaining chip, and not as humans in relation with them.  They were tired of being treated with disrespect and they were not averse to leaving his shenanigans behind.  No more wheeling and dealing in their households.  Or almost – but you’ll have to read the next chapter yourselves to see what trick one daughter pulled on her dad.
Giving thanks when we are facing family estrangement or broken trust or hurtful relationships is not easy.  Some days we must walk away from unhealthy behaviors.  I am very proud of your church council who set a goal of Zero tolerance for negativity, gossip, triangulation and unhealthy communication patterns. 
Tim McKenna suggested that “We encourage optimistic, positive attitudes and communication styles so that we all have fun and live longer.”  Jacob would have agreed with that idea.
Being thankful at all times was brought home to me by a speech I heard this Wednesday at Toastmasters.  Alfred Beaver shared a story with us that had us all thinking.  He gave me permission to share that story here today.  Alfred had a brother, named Archie, who was born with a unusually large head.  The doctor suggested that the baby be taken to Edmonton to live in a hospital or group home of some sort and said that the baby probably would not live to see his first birthday.  Archie was never able to walk, but he was able to talk and lived into his twenties, despite medical predictions to the contrary.  Every year Alfred’s dad would hold a feast on Archie’s birthday, in gratitude to the Creator for Archie’s life.  When Archie was starting to fail, the family was summoned to his bed.  Archie told Alfred, “you can walk, you can talk, you have two good hands and two good feet.  You can leave this room and go wherever you want.  I have never left this bed my whole life, and I am thankful for my life and my family who care for me.  And yet I have never heard you say, “I am thankful for what I can do.”  Archie died shortly after that visit, and Alfred never forgot those words.  Their dad continued to hold a feast on Archie’s birthday in thanksgiving for the life and the wisdom of his son.
So what are we thankful for?  How can we say thank you?  May we find ways this busy weekend to stop and be thankful for our hands and feet, our wise friends, our trustworthy family members, and our God who loves us no matter what.