Monday, January 30, 2006

Sun, January 29, 2006 - To Be Right or To Be Silent

Deut 18:15-20
1 Cor 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

So the early church in Corinth had a problem. They were a group of Christians whose members were at different stages in their faith journey, like all Christian communities. Some of the Corinthian Christians were very knowledgeable about their faith, presumably they'd been Christians for a while, they were strong in their faith, and nothing could sway them from that. Others of the Corinthian Christians were newer, they didn't have as sophisticated a level of interpretation when it came to the Scriptures, and their faith just wasn't as strong as their sisters and brothers.

But the church in Corinth ran into a dilemma. There were, at that time in the Roman Empire, a number of different religious cults that practiced animal sacrifice. Worshippers would buy some meat, take it to their religious leader to be sacrificed, and after the ritual was over, the priest would return some of the meat so it could be eaten, or even sell it back on the market. Now, if you were a worshipper in one of these cults, eating that meat didn't pose any kind of a problem. But what if you didn't worship in that cult? What if you were, say, a Christian? Was it right to eat that meat or not?

Well, the church in Corinth was divided. Those who were knowledgeable and strong in their faith said, "Well, we know that there's only one God, so even though the meat was used for idol-worship, those idols don't exist, so it's still just plain meat, no matter what ritual it was put through." And they would buy and eat the meat, and have no qualms about it. But other Christians, those whose understanding wasn't as sophisticated or who didn't want to take those kinds of risks, didn't see it that way. For them, eating that meat was the same thing as participating in the idol-worship - it was the same thing as worshipping other gods. And when they saw some of their Christian brothers and sisters, whom they admired as knowledgeable in the faith, taking part in those rituals, their faith wavered. They questioned the leadership of their church. It would be safe to guess that some of them even stopped coming around on Sunday mornings to worship because the matter troubled them so much.

So what was the church in Corinth to do? On the one hand, the more knowledgeable Christians were right - there was no harm in eating meat offered to gods who didn't exist. It was foolish of people to get worked up and lose faith over something that didn't matter. But on the other hand, their less knowledgeable sisters and brothers just couldn't go that far in their faith, and were so troubled by it that they were turning away. So the church asked Paul - which was better? To be knowledgeable, and to act on that knowledge, dismissing the ignorant concerns of those new to the faith? Or to give in to the weak consciences of those who didn't understand things the way they did and put aside what they knew to be right about the faith? In other words, which was better - to be right or to be silent?

We don't have quite the same dilemma in our own lives these days. That is, we don't worry about whether the food we eat has been offered to idols or been part of some kind of religious sacrifice. But we do still face the dilemma of whether it is better to be right or to be silent. Inside the church or outside of it, we are most of us in positions of some kind of authority. Whether as parents, or teachers, or supervisors at work, we all have moments when people look to us to know what they should do. And most of the time, it's easy to know what to do. When we know more than somebody else, there's usually no problem with telling them what we know. We see someone hooking up their jumper cables to their battery wrong, and we say, "Hey, don't do that." We see someone standing in line for something they don't need to, and we say, "Hey, you can skip the line and just go ahead." We're in the car with a new driver and they're going only 90 on the 401 and the traffic is piling up behind them and we might say, "Hey, it's okay to go 100."

But sometimes the situation isn't so black-and-white as that. Sometimes things are a little greyer. Sometimes, even though our knowledge might be right and true, that isn't the point. Take the driving example, for instance. In Alberta, where I learned to drive, the speed on divided highways is 110. So I know from experience that a car can safely travel at 110 on the highway, and nobody's going to get hurt. Those of us who have been driving for many years know that that's a reasonable speed for the highway. But does that automatically mean that if I'm in the car with a new driver, I can just say to them, "Hey, it's okay to go 110, don't worry about the speed limit, it's really old and outdated?" I don't think so. This hypothetical new driver might think I'm encouraging them to break all of the speed limits and end up completely disrespectful of any and all traffic laws. So what do I do? Is it better to be right or to be silent? We all find ourselves in situations where we have to ask, is it better for us to share what we know, to be right, or would doing so hurt the other person? Is it better to just keep our mouths shut? How do we solve the dilemma?

Well, Paul had a straightforward answer to the Corinthians' problem. "Knowledge puffs up," he said, "but love builds up." When it came to the question of meat offered to idols, Paul essentially said, "Yes, you strong Christians, you are right. You know the truth, that the meat is harmless. In your knowledge, you are free to eat whatever you want. But you are not alone in this church. You are in a community, and there are others who are watching you, and who are troubled by your actions and by how you interpret the rules. And they are losing faith. So for their sake, for love of them, and so as not to destroy their love for God, be silent. Don't eat the meat, even though there's nothing wrong with it. Be silent - suppress the desire to show off how sophisticated a Christian you are - constrain yourselves simply for the sake of those around you." For Paul, it was all a matter of love and building up the faith of others. If being and saying what was right led the other person closer to the love of God, well that's great. But if it meant that the other no longer felt close to God, well then for God's sake, literally, keep quiet no matter how much you know. For Paul, there were definitely times when it was better to be silent than to be right, and love let him know when those times were.

We can use the same principle in our dilemmas. When we are struggling with whether or not to speak, we can ask ourselves which option will lead the other person to see that God loves them, and which option will drive them away. I don't think I need to elaborate on the Christians out there who say things that are biblically correct but drive others away from God because all they speak about is judgement. According to Paul, it would be better for those guys to bite their tongue, no matter how wrong they think the other people are. And sometimes the same is true for us. Sometimes no matter how right we know ourselves to be, we just have to zip our mouths shut so that we don't weaken other people's faith in God or send them running away from God altogether.

The best example of this that I can think of comes from Les Miserables, the book by Victor Hugo that later became a musical. In the early stages of the story, there is a character named Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, who was sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread. Within four days of his release, he ends up at the house of a bishop, starving and without any money at all. The bishop invites him in, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep for the night. Well, at some point in the middle of the night, Jean Valjean wakes up and decides to leave, taking with him - stealing, actually - the very expensive silver-ware plates that the bishop has in the house so that he can trade them for money to start a new life. And he is gone.

Later that morning, though, some police show up at the bishop's door with Jean Valjean and the stolen silver plates. The bishop comes to the door and what does he say? Does he say, "Oh thank you, messieurs les gendarmes, for arresting this man and returning my plates?" That would have been the right thing to say - it would have been true. But it would also have destroyed Jean Valjean. And so the bishop, out of love, and hoping to bring Jean Valjean to God's love says, "I am glad to see you. But why didn't you take the two candlesticks that I gave you along with the silver plates?" And he explains to the police, quite falsely, hiding the truth, staying silent about what is right, that he gave the silverware to Jean Valjean to start a new life. The bishop, doing what Paul would have done, stays silent about what is right so that Valjean can know that the love of God means building others up, not tearing them down.

It's not easy in our culture to do as Paul suggests - to be silent. We prize knowledge so highly, and we're so insistent on having the last word, that being silent can be difficult. It means hiding what we know, it means appearing less knowledgeable than we are, it means stifling our pride at "knowing the right answer." But those are all small prices to pay to demonstrate the love of God to others so that they, in turn, come to love God. And after all, isn't that what we're called to do in the world? Not to show off how much we know, or how right we are, but to spread the good news of God's love to others, the love that we have received ourselves, through Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sun, January 22, 2006 - Repent and Believe

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

"Never apologize and never explain - it's a sign of weakness." So said the great John Wayne, in his movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It's a sentiment that some of us might agree with - in this day and age, apologizing for something we've done isn't really the cool thing to do. A lot of parents find it hard to apologize to their children, you'll almost never hear politicians apologizing in public, and when was the last time your boss said sorry for something and really meant it? Sure, we all mutter "sorry" under our breath when we bump into somebody, but we rarely truthfully and honestly apologize for the real mistakes that we've made. Probably for that exact reason - we don't want people to think we've actually made a mistake. We don't want people to think that we're less than perfect, that we have failed to do something or done it incorrectly. We don't want people to think, like John Wayne does, that we're weak.

Well, today's readings from the Old Testament and the Gospel are about repentance. Now, repentance is a lot like apologizing - it involves acknowledging that you've made a mistake, that you've been less than perfect, that you are not as superior as you like people to think you are. But repentance is about more than just apologizing - it's about more than just feeling bad and saying sorry. Repentance is also about action - specifically, about action that rectifies the mistake you've made. The Greek word for "repent," which Jesus used when he said, "repent, and believe in the good news" is "metaneo," which means to turn, and particularly to turn one's self right around from what one was doing. It is a word that is connected to actions, not to feelings or to speaking words, but to actually doing something.

That sense of turning, of action as a part of repentance, is felt throughout our Bible, both Old and New Testaments. In today's reading from Jonah, God sent Jonah to Nineveh to get the people to repent, to turn from their wicked ways. And when the people of Nineveh heard Jonah's message, they didn't just feel bad and hang their heads and say, "Oh, sorry, God, for our gluttony and vanity and generally wicked behaviour." No, they moved into action - they fasted, a sign of feeling sorry but also a 180 degree turn from being gluttonous, and they put on sackcloth - goat- hair shirts - another sign of repentance but also a 180 turn from wearing fine, expensive clothing. Their repentance included action.

In our Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus called people to "repent, and believe in the good news," and Simon and Andrew and James and John "immediately" leapt into action. We don't know what they were repenting of - there's nothing wrong with being a fisherman, but nevertheless, after hearing Jesus' call to repentance they turned away from their lives as fishermen and turned to new lives of being Jesus' disciples. In the Bible, the call to repentance is answered by action.

It ought to be that way today, too. God does, after all, call us to repentance in this day and age as well. The situation Nineveh found itself in that led it to require repentance is similar to the situation we find ourselves in. Nineveh was reputed to be a city of excess and greed, where every sin imaginable was committed - sort of the Las Vegas of Biblical times. Can we honestly say that we're any different? That we don't need to repent of these same things? Jesus' call to the disciples and the people of Galilee, to repent and believe in the good news - that's a call to us, too, issued every Sunday in the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness. We even hear God calling us to repentance in the words from 1 Corinthians - in Paul's words to turn away from the obsessions of the world and return to a focus on Christ. And remember, God is calling us to do more than just feel bad and say sorry, God is calling us to actually turn, to take action.

Now there are a lot of things we need to repent of, but there's one in particular I want to focus on today, and that is our overwhelming insistence on putting ourselves first. We live in an age of individualism, where what is good for me is more important than what is good for the community. We are told that I come first, that I have to take care of myself above all, that my needs take priority. Now, I'm not saying that self-care is bad, or that we need to sacrifice ourselves completely for the common good - but if you think of it as a pendulum, with one side being nothing but the community and the other side being nothing but the individual, well we've swung a little too far towards the individual side and need to return more towards the middle. If you'll forgive me for once again dragging politics into the pulpit, when politicians try to swing votes by promising personal tax cuts at the cost of community well-being and social structures, that is catering to the individual. When somebody asks for our help and our first thought is, "I don't have the time," - or the money, depending on what they're asking for - rather than "I'll give you whatever you need," that is putting our individual selves above the good of the other. Sister Joan Chittester asked a rhetorical question that highlights the seriousness of our problem. She said, "The real social question of the age is: How many ads can a person possibly watch on TV and stay more committed to the enlightenment of the self than to the aggrandizement of the self?" We are, each one of us - there are no exceptions here - dedicated to the aggrandizement of the self - to making ourselves more important, more valuable - in short, to doing everything possible so that the world revolves around us.

And it's wrong. Do I need to say that? Is it obvious to you why God would call us to repent of this self-centred individualism? For one thing, like I said, it's wrong. Living this way requires others to sacrifice themselves for us, and if everybody did it, we could very well end up ourselves as the victims of someone else's self-importance. Any action we can take to rectify that situation and turn it around is a good thing. God will forgive us, it's true, but that forgiveness won't fix the mistakes we've made or put right our wrongs. The responsibility for that belongs to us. But that's not the only reason God calls us to repentance - for this and for all the other things we do wrong.

God calls us to turn from acting this way because it's only in turning, in taking action and repenting, that we can turn away from ourselves and back to God. Simply feeling bad and saying sorry won't do a darn thing if we continue to act in self-centred ways. Unless we actually turn ourselves around, we will continue to walk the path of " me first" and we will discover that we are moving farther and farther away from God.

So that's the bad news. What's the good news? Well, the good news is that God isn't just telling you to turn away from your sins, and that's it. Instead, God is actually giving you something to turn towards. In other words, God isn't out there saying, "Repent or die" - threatening you until you act. Rather, God is saying "Repent and live." God is, essentially, trying to bribe you into action. You could call it positive reinforcement. When Jesus said, "Repent and believe in the good news," he wasn't saying, "Repent and believe... or else." He was saying, "Repent and believe because the good news is for you." And the good news is that God is merciful, and accepts your repentance, and is full of steadfast love towards you no matter what. The good news is that when you turn to God, God gives you new life, and helps you to complete your turning, and brings you into the kingdom of God.

The good news is also that repentance isn't a sign of weakness. Interestingly enough, even God repents. Even God turns from one thing to follow another path. After Noah and the flood, God repented of wiping out the earth and swore a covenant never to do it again. God took a new path. And when it came to the people of Nineveh, God changed God's mind about punishing them, God repented and turned to forgiving them instead. Repentance, it turns out, is a sign of strength, something to be followed, something that gives us new life and joy.

Yes, it's hard to truly repent. Muttering sorrys is a lot easier than taking action and turning around. But God has such a wonderful gift awaiting us when we do, that it's worth it. God isn't asking us to repent so that we'll be miserable, but so that we can truly enjoy life and be right with God. The Ninevites repented and were no longer sickened by their over-indulgent lifestyles. The disciples repented and although their lives were more difficult, I daresay that they found more fulfilment and satisfaction following Christ than being fishermen. God's call to repentance, it turns out, is a blessing in disguise. Although we might be reluctant to turn from our sin, it turns out that that's how we end up facing, and receiving, the good news. That's how we know that God is truly merciful and welcomes us and loves us no matter what. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sun, Jan 8, 2006 - Happy New Year

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

So, the new year has begun, and it's an awful lot like the old year, isn't it? I know we're only a week into it, but it seems like 2006 is looking a lot like 2005, don't you think? Other than new pictures on the calendar, and the new date in the chequebook, everything seems pretty much the same. The things that were piling up at work before the new year are still piling up, the chores around the house that needed to be done still need to be done, the frenzied pace of our lives is still frenzied.

It's kind of disappointing. I mean, the whole idea of the New Year makes us think that the year will be, well, new. That it will be different - the slate wiped clean to start over, wrongs magically erased. The new year would be great if we woke up on January 1st and saw that while we were asleep, our lives had been tidied up and made new again, the things we had put off were completed, the new year's resolutions that we had made were already accomplished. Heck, I'd be happy if the new year meant that the Christmas tree in my living room had been magically taken down and put away already. That's the way to start the new year. With things actually being new.

It would be nice, wouldn't it? After all, we all have a desire - some more than others - for things to be orderly, to be tidied up. We all have a desire for our lives to be tidied up - for our mistakes to disappear, for a chance to start over again - at work, in our relationships, with God. But as it turns out, things are the same old mess they were last year. The mistakes we made in 2005 haven't disappeared with the change in the calendar. The chaos that we've managed to create in our lives hasn't magically resolved into orderliness at the stroke of midnight. The darkness and hurt that we've brought to the world through our wrongdoings haven't just vanished because it's a new year. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, all of that mess is still there, even if it is now 2006.

It was the mess of life and the desire for newness that drove people to John the Baptizer, out in the wilderness. They wanted to repent of their mistakes, their sins, and John promised them that doing that, and being baptized, would wipe the slate clean. Their sins would be forgiven, washed away by the river Jordan. They would have their own personal spiritual new year the minute they came up out of the waters - they could clean up their lives with one pious immersion. It's an appealing idea, so naturally, a lot of people went down to see John - the whole countryside, according to Mark. And one of those people was Jesus.

Now this is where things get a bit confusing. First of all, what is Jesus doing down there being baptized? We have the story of Jesus' baptism in all four gospels, and nowhere does it get explained why Jesus is being baptized. It's not like he needs his sins forgiven - according to tradition, Jesus was sinless. Nothing to be forgiven for, nothing to repent of. He doesn't need a new year like we do - he doesn't have to clean up his act, or make resolutions to be a better person. So what's Jesus doing down in that mess of humanity, getting all mixed up in other people's sins and mistakes and chaos? That's all mixed up - he's not supposed to come down into our messy world and get baptized and cleansed of sins he didn't even commit and hang around with us in our muckiness. It's supposed to be the other way around. We're supposed to get baptized and cleansed and leave our messiness and go to be with him in his cleanliness and pureness and orderliness, right? Why would he come down to be in our old year when we're so desperately trying to get into his new year?

Well, it turns out that the thing about Jesus is that he's not interested in waiting around for us to get our lives cleaned up before coming to him. He'd rather come to us and help us get the cleaning done right where we are. The point of Christmas a few weeks ago is that God came into the midst of humanity as the baby Jesus to change the world, and the point of Jesus' baptism is that God's Beloved came into the midst of our particularly sinful humanity to change ourworld. You see, God doesn't step aside and watch passively as we struggle, and fail, to make our lives new again, to bring order out of our chaos, to erase the mistakes we've made. God gets down in the mess, in the chaos and darkness and sinfulness of our lives and works at it with us.

It's been God's habit from the beginning. "In the beginning," God did not wait for light to emerge by itself from the dark, or for the chaotic void to take shape on its own. That would never have happened. Instead, God spoke, God acted, and through the Spirit - the wind, as our translation says, although it also means spirit - God called forth the light out of the darkness, and made order out of the chaos. God brought about a new thing because that new thing could not happen on its own. Only God's Spirit can bring life. Only God's Spirit can make things new. And that is what happened. In a sense, the first day of Creation was the first new year, and God made it happen.

This is what God was making happen in the baptism of Jesus. God was making a new thing happen in the waters of the Jordan, because the old thing wasn't enough. The baptism with water that John practiced - it was well and good, it helped people repent of their mistakes, but it didn't change them. It didn't actually make them able to carry out the new things in their life. As the story in Acts tells us, it's because there was no Holy Spirit in John's kind of baptism. There was water, which washed away the old dirt, but there was nothing to bring about the new. Until Jesus.

With the baptism of Jesus, God did not wait for sinfulness to resolve itself into holiness, or for us to magically fix ourselves. With the baptism of Jesus, God repeated the same miracle God had performed at Creation - God got down into our mess, into the chaos and darkness, and God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, made something new. Through Jesus' baptism, God brought holiness into the midst of the sinfulness that was down there at the Jordan. Through Jesus' baptism, God began a new year.

It is a new year, a new beginning, that we all share when we're baptized. When you were baptized, it was with water, but it was also in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And that made it a new beginning for you. Your mistakes were forgiven, your relationships were set right. God set about cleaning things up, restoring order, and bringing light into your life. This isn't just a once-in-a-lifetime thing, either. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, brought to you in your baptism, God is doing these things on an ongoing basis, continually giving you the help you need to continue in that newness.

And the effect of God's help, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the baptism you share with Jesus, is - as a canticle from the LBW service tells us - "a clean heart, and a renewed right spirit" within you. It means that, although you may look the same on the outside as you did before, spiritually, in your heart, God is constantly making you new - God is continually bringing you a real new year, one that really is different from the year before. God is not only erasing your old sins, but helping you to avoid making new ones. God is making you a new creation.

Now, that doesn't mean that everything is magically fixed in the blink of an eye - that you no longer have to clean up after yourself, so to speak, or that you will automatically succeed at your new year's resolutions, or that you won't have to work to fix mistakes you've made. But it does mean that you are no longer the same person you were, that you are not compelled to repeat the same mistakes, or make the same mess, or commit the same sins. I could say that you'll make all new ones, but that's not what I mean when I say that God has made you new. Just like in Creation, and in the baptism of Jesus, God is working a miracle in you, bringing light into your darkness, holiness into your sinfulness, and giving you a true new year. So, may the grace and light of God, given to you in baptism, growing in you through the Holy Spirit, make your new year truly blessed. Amen.