Saturday, March 16, 2019

Mid-Week Lent Series - When Church Hurts - #1

The theme of our Lenten Evening Services this year is “When Church Hurts.” And you may be here specifically for that reason, or you might be here because evening worship is part of your Lenten practice, or maybe you are not even sure why you are here, but you just are. In Lent, we engage in the difficult work of acknowledging sin - either sin we have committed or sin committed against us or sin that we see others suffering from. We often describe this work using terms of light and darkness. This year in Lent, we will acknowledge the darkness that can exist in church––that can be caused by people in the church, and that people in the church can suffer from. When Church Hurts means both the hurt caused by church, and the hurt suffered by church. My prayer is that you find healing over these next five weeks as we walk together through this, as we walk together towards Easter and the light of the resurrected Christ.

As I read our Scripture for this evening, I invite you to listen to it with an ear to how David betrays those under his rule, and what forms those betrayals take. When church hurts, it is often because there has been a betrayal by someone (or someones) in positions of authority. As I read, keep in mind that David was chosen by God to be the king, and anointed by Samuel. The Spirit of the Lord had come on him in the past, he brought the Ark to Jerusalem, he loved the Lord and wanted to build a Temple for God. David was the spiritual and political leader of Israel. And yet.

2 Samuel 11:1-27

What betrayals came to your mind as you listened?
  • v1. - “when kings go out to battle, David sent (everyone), but David remained in Jerusalem
    • betrayed the trust of his army in their military leader
  • v. 4 - David sent messenger to “get” the wife of Uraiah, and he lay with her
    • betrayed the trust of this woman in her king
  • when faced with the consequences, David:
    • v. 6 - summoned Uriah under false pretenses (how is the army doing?)
      • betrayed the trust of Uriah in his king
    • v. 8 - ordered Uriah to separate himself from solidarity with his fellow soldiers
      • isolated Uriah from those around him, disparaged Uriah’s normal loyalty
    • bribed Uriah to do it
      • tried to emotionally manipulate
    • v. 13 - intoxicated Uriah to do it
      • betrayed Uriah’s trust in his king by acting as if he was a generous king but he was really trying to trick Uriak
    • v.15 - ordered Joab to allow Uriah to be killed
      • Joab could not defy the king’s orders, therefore betrayed Joab’s integrity
  • v. 25 - told Joab not to think about it anymore and normalized Uriah’s death
    • instituted a “do not talk about what I told you to do” rule on Joab
    • tried to establish this kind of death as a normal thing that just happens

We find that leaders of the church hurt us in similar ways
  • they send others out to do the work they are supposed to do
  • use their authority as spiritual leaders to cross boundaries
  • can/do not face consequences or think themselves exempt
  • try to separate those who do not follow them from others, disparage their loyalty to their community
  • use emotional and spiritual manipulation when direct “orders” don’t work
  • use “nice” gestures for ulterior motives so they can’t be blamed
  • use others to do their dirty work
  • spiritually “kill” or excommunicate those who disagree or disobey from the community
  • establish a “do not talk” culture
  • normalize their own troubling behaviour
Who was betrayed in the story?
-the army of Israel
-the people of Israel

Who is betrayed in the church when a leader commits a violation?
-the victim(s)
-the other leaders of the church
-the people of the church, both local and wider
-the leader themself

Who went along with David’s behaviour without challenging it?
-the king’s messengers
(But did they really have a choice, or were they also caught in the king’s system?)

So how does God respond to these betrayals?

This story ends with, “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David.”

Nathan was a prophet sent by God to speak the truth. When God sees that God’s people are hurt or betrayed by someone appointed by God, God does something about it. God sends someone to speak the truth. It is often the case that even when church hurts, there is someone who is trying to tell the truth. Maybe you have heard that person, and didn’t know what to think. Maybe you have been that person, and nobody listened to you. But God always hears, and sooner or later, the truth comes out. Nathan, God’s prophet, says that because of what David has done, which was an act against Uriah, which was even more an act against God, the Lord “will raise up trouble against you from within your own house.” And he says, “You did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” Remember, our God is a God of light, not darkness, and the truth is always brought out into the light of the sun. God desires that you live your lives in the light, and not in the darkness, and when you live in the truth, when you speak the truth, God is always with you.

This year, every Lent service will include an experiential portion of the service, and it will be different every week. This week, I invite you to engage in a breathing exercise that was introduced to us by Dr. Day at a congregational gathering a few weeks ago. Dr. Day pointed out that breathing is an exchange where we breathe out gas that can make us ill (CO2), and we breathe in what makes us healthy (O2). So I’d like to invite you to breathe with some intention for the next few minutes, breathing out the church-hurt, and breathing in God’s light and truth. Perhaps you might think of it as breathing out the times that you have felt betrayed by a spiritual leader, or times when you have felt co-opted into helping in a betrayal, or even times when you have hurt someone in the name of church. Breathe those things out, where they can be out in front of you, where God can gather them up. And perhaps you might think of breathing in as inhaling God’s Holy Spirit, of truth and wisdom and compassion, of truth-telling and light, and let that breathing in fill you with courage and God’s love for you. Let’s begin.

[Breathing for three minutes.]

I invite you to take this exercise home with you this week, and to use it as part of your Lenten prayers or discipline.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Lent 1 - God's Loyalty

Luke 4:1-13

We’re going to start a little differently today. If you don’t mind, can you get your wallet out? No, I’m not going to ask you to take all your money and pass it to the front. Instead, I want you to pull out your loyalty cards. I’ll go first. I’ve got a Costco card. Can’t go wrong with that. I’ve also got an AMA card, a Sewing card, a Lego card (of course), a book points card, I’m supposed to have a Shoppers Optimum card, but I have no idea where it’s gone. And I don’t have a card, but I also have a Co-op number. And I also have an Amex. My husband and I debated a lot about that last one, because I don’t really like credit cards, but this one is supposed to give us a lot of points that we can use for plane tickets to visit the States.

I’m guessing you have some of the same loyalty cards, and maybe some others as well. We sure do like our cards, don’t we? It seems like these days you can’t shop at any store without being asked if you want to sign up for their loyalty club, so you can get rewards. That’s because marketing research has shown that loyalty cards work. People do prioritize spending money at places where they have loyalty cards. I get points for gas at Costco and at Co-op. Unless it’s an emergency, those are the only two places I fill up. Because of the benefits I get with my Lego card, I only ever buy Lego at the actual Lego store. Because we’re wanting to fly to the States this year, I’ve changed my spending habits so that I charge things to my credit card instead of paying directly through debit. I am living proof that loyalty cards work. It’s a bit creepy, if you think about it, the degree to which loyalty cards actually shape our spending habits, the way they actually change our behaviour.

It’s something I’m not entirely comfortable with, because sometimes loyalty cards work better for the company then for me. While it’s true that I get points and rewards, the company actually gets my money. And we have all felt the frustration of trying to access our rewards and the company coming back and saying, “Well... there are these black-out dates,” or “It doesn’t apply to this particular line of products,” or, my personal favourite, “your points don’t carry over to the next year and so we’re sorry to say that they’re expired.” Loyalty card companies don’t always fulfill their side of the bargain, and yet, they still shape the way I shop. And they still have my money.

Today’s Gospel reading is about loyalty. And I want to thank the confirmation class for pointing this out to me last Wednesday. We call this story the Temptation of Jesus, but really, this story is about loyalty. As the students noticed, all of the scenarios that the devil presents are really about the devil asking Jesus to demonstrate his loyalty - underneath each episode, from Jesus’ physical well-being, to the temptation of total earthly power, to self-preservation, is the test: is Jesus going to be loyal to God?

Of course, it should be no surprise that Jesus demonstrates his loyalty. Jesus continues to choose God above all the other choices––indeed, he is loyal to God all the way to his death. But I think this is not the only point of this story. As we know from our experience with loyalty cards, it’s not just about whether we are loyal to the company, but also whether the company is loyal to us. And so I want to suggest that Jesus is loyal to God under this intense pressure because God has first been loyal to Jesus.

We often miss this, in part because of the way the lectionary divides up the Gospel so we can get through all of it in 52 Sundays. But if we actually look in the Bible, we find that right before Jesus went into the desert, he was baptized by John. And remember what happened then? “The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” And how does our reading for today start? “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

Before going into the desert, Jesus was signed up for God’s baptism loyalty card. And a perk of that membership is being filled with the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God. Before Jesus was asked to show his loyalty to God, God demonstrated that God was loyal to Jesus. No black-out dates, no restrictions, no expiries. It was because of that, because of the perk of being filled with the Holy Spirit, that Jesus was able to say no to everything the devil offered, and to remain loyal to God.

The story about Jesus’ temptation––or Jesus’ loyalty––in the desert is always the first one to start our Sundays in Lent, because Lent calls us to show our loyalty to God above all. It is a call that comes to us over the next forty days (minus Sundays) that encourages us to see where in our world we are being called to other loyalties, and to consciously resist those calls in favour of showing loyalty to God. Lent is a time when we lay all our loyalty cards out on the table, and see how they’re changing our behaviours, and decide if that’s really how we want to live.

But we are not sent out into these forty days alone and unequipped. We are only sent into these forty days after we have seen that God’s loyalty to us comes before anything else. God does not ask for your loyalty first; even your baptism is the result of the Holy Spirit first moving you or your parents in that direction. God does not threaten you into loyalty either, saying “Show me loyalty or else!” God does not ask you to go out on a limb, uncertain or afraid. Rather, God demonstrates God’s unwavering love for you, God’s unshakable loyalty to you, what we call God’s steadfast lovingkindness to you, first so that you might learn to turn to God as well.

And so, as we enter these forty days of Lent together, into a time of examining our loyalties and our behaviours before God, I have something for you: A loyalty card for you, issued by God through Christ. 

Feel free to tuck it in your wallet for the next forty days. May it be a reminder for you not only who you are loyal to, but, more importantly, who is loyal to you. Thanks be to God. Amen.