Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sunday, August 17, 2014 - Love First

Advent Lutheran Church, Calgary

Last year, I was a lunchroom and playground monitor at my son’s elementary school. If ever there was a situation that tested one’s abilities in conflict management, it would have to be the Grade Two lunch table and playground. Second graders are sticklers for justice and following the rules, and making sure everybody gets the same as everyone else, and making sure that everyone else apologizes when they’ve done something wrong (everyone *else* being the key term here). Second graders know what good behaviour looks like, and so I spent every recess listening to “he was supposed to share but he didn’t,” and “it was my turn but she took it instead,” and “I hit him because he was going to throw those wood chips at me.” And I tried, I really tried, to get these children to understand exactly what our gospel passage is telling us today. That if you want someone to be nice to you, or do good things for you, or share with you, then you have to make the first move. You have to be nice first, and do good things first, and share first. I tried to teach them that the behaviour you show to your friends, the measure you give, would be the behaviour you get back, the measure you get back from them. In other words, be the one to do good things first, to love first, and good things and love would come back to you.

And, as I am sure you are not at all surprised to hear, my inspiring words achieved nothing. My persistent efforts fell flat. Because it’s hard. It’s hard to be the one to love first. It’s hard to risk yourself and get out there and be accepting, and forgive the other, and give your time or your money or yourself without first having gotten some proof that your vulnerability and kindness will be reciprocated. And despite assurances and promises that the good you offer is the good you will have returned to you, it is a promise that seems just too good to be true. It’s too easy. It’s too neat and tidy, and we live in an age of skepticism and cynicism. We’ve learned that things go on behind the scenes, and that people have hidden motives for what they do, and that you can’t really trust someone’s word. As adults, we’ve been let down or even betrayed by the very people who were supposed to act first - by our parents, by the church, by the government. And while it’s sad that second graders already have this level of skepticism and suspicion, we can sympathize with them. Why be the first to act when you may be the only one acting? Why trust that the good you put out there will be returned to you?  

We call this way of looking at the world a hermeneutic of suspicion - an interpretation of doubt. We listen to someone’s story about something with an eye to what is really going on. Using a hermeneutic of suspicion, we read the story of Ruth from this morning with a skeptical eye. What was Naomi up to? Why is she sending Ruth into a field of reapers without warning her to be careful of the men? Why does she leave it up to Boaz to notice and protect the very vulnerable Ruth? What kind of family member tells a young woman to dress up nicely and go alone and at night to the man with the most power and do what he tells her? And why is Boaz being so nice to Ruth? What does he want from her? I am, I must admit, very suspicious of Naomi’s behavior and of the way she treated Ruth, and at this point in the story, Boaz’s actions seems questionable, too. Boaz seems too good to be true, and if I were Ruth, I would not be the first to act.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be suspicious, and to look out for who has the most to gain in a particular situation, or to pay attention to the ways in which power gets used, or abused, and people get manipulated. It’s not a bad thing to be worried about being taken advantage of, and holding back on the first move. Our intuition that people might be trying to get the upper hand is one that stems from thousands of years of survival instinct, and so we can’t really knock it.

Except that, as hard as it is, we still have this gospel passage of Jesus telling us to take that first step. To be the ones who love first. The grammatical arrangement of the sentences are pretty clear: be merciful, and then.... do not condemn, and then... forgive, and then ... give, and then .... Our actions are supposed to come first. We are supposed to love first. But given our hermeneutic of suspicion, how are we to trust this? How can we trust that good will be returned for good? Lutherans in particular spend a lot of time talking about our perpetual failure to do what we’re supposed to do, so where does all of this goodness and love come from?

To work this out, we have to go back to the beginning. To the very beginning. To “In the beginning, God made heaven and earth.” And we learn that in the beginning, God created humankind in the image of God. Imago Dei the theologians say. We are made in the image of God. But what does that mean? Well, Genesis tells us two things about God. The first is that God acts first. God is the prime mover, the original cause, God is the one who acts first, who creates first, who loves first. And we are made in that image. We are made in the image of the one who is the first to act and create and love. We are copies of this one who loves first. So when Jesus tells us to be the first to be merciful, and the first to forgive, and the first to give, he is not asking us to do anything that is contrary to our nature. He is, in fact, asking us to act precisely in the way we have been made. He is reminding us to act like our originals - to love first, the way God does.

We are made in the image of God, and we are good copies. We are faithful copies. We know this because the second thing that Genesis tells us is that the things that God makes are good, and the humans that God makes in God’s image are very good. We are very good copies of the image of God. We are like digital copies, lossless copies that aren’t corrupted. We aren’t analog copies, that lose the sharpness of the original image. So when we love first, and do good deeds, while we might be skeptical and cynical and question our own motives, or question whether our good deeds will really result in good in return, Genesis reassures us that our good deeds are copies of the goodness of the Creator, and despite our own misgivings, our reaching out to forgive and give and our acting in love comes from being made in the image of God, and as such, will be like the deeds of God - truly good and truly loving. There is no hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to the goodness of God. 

Those who are made in the image of God are thus made to act first in love, and their good deeds are truly good. Incidentally, when I say “those” who are made in the image of God, I mean everyone. I know that sometimes we Christians like to think that we have the monopoly on goodness, and that we are the only ones who do truly good things, and that we are the first to love as Jesus has loved, but I also know that we all know people who are not Christians who are nevertheless merciful and gracious and forgiving and generous, often times even more so than ourselves. Gandhi, for instance - not Christian. Malala Yousafzai, the girl who championed the education of girls under the Taliban and was shot and still carried on - not Christian. Boaz - who acted first in goodness to help the stranger Ruth - not Christian. Christians do not have a monopoly on being made in the image of God. All of humankind, every individual, is made in God’s image and so every individual is graced with God’s ability to act in love first, and to carry the goodness of God in their good deeds.

Which means that when we do good, we can trust that we will receive good in return. Because the good we do, the goodness of God, speaks to God’s goodness in others. The love of God that we exhibit to others calls forth the image of God within them. When we, in the image of God, act first to forgive another, they, also in the image of God, act to forgive us as well. Maybe not immediately, maybe not in the ways we expect, but the love of God does not return empty-handed. The image of God is a very good one.

The gospel passage for today calls us to put aside our fear that things are too good to be true. Jesus calls us to put aside our suspicion that if we love first we will be taken advantage of, and he asks us instead to be the first to share, the first to reach out to the stranger, the first to act in the love of God. We may have that little second-grader inside of us, telling us that the other person should share first, and insisting that we see proof of the behaviour we want before we step out in love, but we can respond to that voice inside of us with the reminder that we are made in the image of God. The other is made in the image of God. And we are much better at good deeds than we think, and our good deeds will be more effective than we think. When we forgive, in the image of God, the other will forgive, because they are also in the image of God. When we give - ourselves, our time, and our possessions - because we are in the image of God, others will give, because their goodness also comes from God. The goodness of God in us evokes the goodness of 

God in others. God has made us to do good. God made you to do good - to love first, and to be merciful, to forgive and to give first. Mercy will call forth more mercy. Forgiveness will call forth more forgiveness. Giving will call forth more giving. Because this is the kind of people God has made, in God’s own image, and what God has made is, indeed, very good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sun, August 10, 2014 - Poor in Spirit

Psalm 87:8-13
Ruth 1
Matthew 5:3-9
Advent Lutheran, Calgary

Isn’t it nice to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel today? After weeks of truly terrible news–war between Gaza and Israel, and Russia and the Ukraine, planes getting shot out of the sky, the Ebola virus in Africa, even the hailstorm in Airdrie on Thursday–it’s nice to hear something positive, isn’t it? The Beatitudes, these “blessings” that we hear so often, describe a world that stands in stark contrast to the world we’re living in right now. They describe a world that we hope for, but that we don’t often see, in which the misfortunes that people experience are overturned and reversed. We have those who mourn, who are suffering from loss, whether a family member has died, or a relationship has gone sour, or they have lost a job, or a pet, or anything meaningful to them. For those who mourn, Jesus utters God’s promise of comfort. Those who mourn will be blessed as their grief and loss is overturned into God’s comfort. And then we have those who are meek, which means those who are powerless. Meek here doesn’t mean those who hold their tongue, or who refrain from saying nasty things. Meek here means those who are truly powerless - children who are prevented from standing up for themselves, seniors who don’t have the strength to care for themselves, families who can’t stop rockets dropping on their houses, workers whose shifts are entirely at the whims of their bosses. Those who are meek will be blessed by inheriting the earth - receiving the earth as a gift. The meek will not have to earn justice or deserve justice or work for justice - they will receive it as a gift. And then there are those who are ‘poor in spirit.’ It’s such an interesting phrase - poor in spirit. A lot of times it’s interpreted to mean humble, or lacking in pride, or literally poor, but what it really means is depressed. The poor in spirit are those who have no reason to hope in this world. They may be literally poor, but they may also be emotionally impoverished because of depression or anxiety, they may be spiritually poor because the church has alienated them. The poor in spirit are people who are lonely and depressed and who have no hope. But, again, Jesus proclaims that the poor in spirit will receive the blessing of the kingdom of heaven. That is, the blessing of a place of hope: where mercy reigns, where God is present, where peace is the rule. The poor in spirit, and the meek, and those who mourn, and those who need righteousness and justice, all of these people - the whole world, in fact - will be blessed because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them - justice and mercy and peace belong to them. To us.

What Jesus is talking about is truly wonderful. But... it doesn’t always seem like the world really works that way, does it? Where is the gift of the earth for those meek and oppressed whose houses have been destroyed by rockets? Where is the gift of the earth for those meek and powerless who suffer under the hand of abusers? Where is the comfort for those who mourn because they have lost family members to a violent murder? Where is the comfort for those who mourn who have had to leave behind friends to move to a new land? Where is the kingdom of heaven for those poor in spirit who are living in refugee camps in South Sudan? Where is the kingdom of heaven for those poor in spirit who are in the deepest clutches of clinical depression and mental illness? 

As lovely as these Beatitudes are, when we really stop to think about them, they can cause some cognitive despair. When we really think, we realize that there is actually a huge gap between the world that we hear promised in the Bible and the world that we see around us. And the tough part is that it seems as if there is nothing to be done about it. As much as we hear the promises, it seems hard to believe in them when the world is such a mess - when people are starving, dying from war, watching their land and water being taken away, suffering from untreated illness, being abused by the people charged to take care of them - and nothing seems to change. 

There is a huge gap between our ideal and reality, and for me, at least, what seems to be the worst is that there is no way to change it. In many ways, it seems as if we are too insignificant to make any difference on any scale that matters.  We have no control over the price of gas or the decisions of policy makers, we have no influence in the peace negotiations among world leaders and we can’t change where the hailstorms might deliver their next rounds. Even in our own lives, it often seems as if we live at the hands of fate. We can’t control whether or not we will get cancer, we don’t have a say in how long we live or how we die. Even if we try, it seems as if there are factors outside of our control that change everything. Take Naomi, from our reading from Ruth. Her husband, Elimelech, whose name means God is my King, tried to take control of the life of his family by moving them from Bethlehem, which was experiencing a devastating famine, to Moab. He thought he was making his family’s life better, but in fact, he died, and ten years later his sons died, and his wife was left alone. He could not stop death from coming. So, try as we might, no matter how we try to move the reality of our world to the ideal of the kingdom of justice and mercy and safety, it doesn’t seem to work.

So what ought we to do when there is this promised kingdom of heaven on one hand, and this dismal reality on the other? How are we to live in this gap without giving in to despair? It seems to me that there are three responses. The first, the one advocated the most often in the history of the church, is to be patient and, as we hear so often, trust in the Lord. The first response is to do nothing, as it were. To live, like Job, trusting in God despite all the hardships and to just accept what comes and to hope that God will make a way out of no way, that God will make all things for good. To acknowledge that taking our lives into our own hands is a move of foolishness, given how little we really know about how our lives will turn out and how small we are against the entire history of the world. To trust God and to do nothing, as it were.

The second response, less encouraged by churches but more popularly heard in the world in general, is to take charge. To stop leaving our lives up to fate and to get out there and actually make a difference. To get involved, to act, to believe that we can make a difference and to engage in positive thinking and goal visioning, and to make things better. To acknowledge that leaving our lives up to fate is a different kind of foolishness, given how ingrained people are to taking advantage of others and how everyone tends to grab as much power as they can. To put our faith only into our own actions and do something, as it were.
The third is a combination of both of these - to trust in the Lord and to do something. To bring the kingdom of heaven to earth by making it. To trust the Lord when it comes to the big things like life and death, but to do something and act when it comes to the small things, like making the lives of others easier. To bring the kingdom of heaven to those individuals around us who are poor in spirit, rather than waiting it for to appear somewhere on the horizon. To comfort those near us who mourn, rather than waiting for time to heal all wounds. To bring power and the earth to those we meet who are meek, rather than waiting for the great circle of life to right all wrongs. This third response is one of trusting that God’s promise is true - that there is actually a kingdom of heaven, and then working to make it happen. We see this third kind of response in the book of Ruth, actually. In Ruth, which we only heard the beginning of, we see Naomi both trusting that the Lord will take care of God’s people and returning to Bethlehem, but then advising Ruth to take action and attract Boaz’s attention so that he marries her and provides security for Ruth and Naomi. And we see Ruth also trusting in the Lord, but then taking steps to put herself in Boaz’s path so that she can change her and Naomi’s life for the better. Rather than lamenting the famine, or trying to fight the patriarchal system that makes widows vulnerable, she works as an individual to make a difference in the lives of those around her. 

This third response - trust in God but act in the world -  is, I believe, the one that God is calling us to take in this day and age. You see, one of the facts of this world, and I think this is an intentional design feature on God’s part, is that we live in this world with others. Both the story of Ruth and the Gospel of Matthew tell us this, although they do it in subtle ways. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi, and this turns out to be the comfort for Naomi’s mourning and the blessing of her loss, as Ruth bears a son, Obed, who Naomi adopts as her own. It is a story of the comfort that comes from acting within relationships, and from acting on a small, individual scale. In the gospel Beatitudes, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus describes is built on mercy, and peace, and justice - things that only come when individuals act to bring them to other individuals.

I do think that God uses those moments of cognitive despair, those gaps between our ideals and our reality, to prompt us to action and to this third response. I believe that when we feel these things, it is God’s Spirit at work in us. We are supposed to despair that the world is not what we have been told it should be. We are supposed to be concerned that the promised kingdom of heaven is so far from being real for so many people around the world. But then we are supposed to do something about it. We are supposed to look around us, and to see those small, individual instances of disjunct in the people around us, and to step into that gap. To be merciful, to make peace, to show the love of God. It is not that we are taking over God’s work, and that we are attempting to bring about our own version of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, it is that we are enacting God’s work. That we are bringing about the kingdom of heaven on God’s behalf. That we are allowing God’s Spirit to use us to fulfill God’s promises for peace, and justice, and mercy.

This God-given ability to act is, I think, where we find blessing and hope. God does not condemn us to watch the world fall apart and to believe that we are just along for a doomed ride. God does not open our eyes to suffering in the world and to the gap between the ideal and reality and then leave us powerless to do anything about it. The blessing of God is that God gives us the power to make changes. God blesses us to bring the kingdom of heaven to those around us. God empowers us to carry out those small acts of peace and justice and mercy, so that person by person, the kingdom of heaven comes to earth. Jesus’ proclamation of the blessing of the kingdom of heaven is, after all, fulfilled for us. We will receive it, and so will those around us, as we act to make it real, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the name of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, Amen.