Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Piggyback God

Abraham’s temporary willingness to participate in the blood sacrifice of his son casts a long shadow – confusion and mayhem for the next three generations. In light of the divine promise, that the descendents of Abraham would be a blessing to all nations, the enterprise is off to a rocky start.

For the next several weeks, we will hear the stories of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Esau, of Laban, Leah, and Rachel, of Joseph and his brothers. These are not impressive people. They’re either weak or on the make, dreamily enjoying favoured status or busily plotting to sell a brother into slavery. It surely isn’t anything about the character and morality of these descendents of Sarah and Abraham that has us still telling their stories.  

Indeed, these stories are not really about what these three generations accomplish. Much of that is, in fact, sordid. No, what these stories proclaim is what God is able to make of these three generations. There is a story greater than their stories woven through their lives, bringing together the jagged edges of rivalries and violence, and – finally – of reconciliation, into a coherent account of God in mission, of God riding piggyback on the intrigue and hostility to tell a quite different story.

Kind of like in the church, you know, where agendas collide and we tussle for ascendency, sometimes across the whole landscape of a church (think same-sex relationships and property litigation), and sometimes in the very local reality of a parish community, where gossip can pose as fact, and innuendo as evidence.

The late Joe Wright, who loomed larger-than-life at St. Cuthbert’s Church in Leaside, once encountered a parishioner on the street (so the story goes). “Bill,” he said, “haven’t seen you in church lately.” “Place is full of hypocrites,” said Bill by way of excuse.  Joe’s legendary response?  “Don’t worry about that. There’s always room for one more!”

That’s our truth. There’s always room for one more, and how we come together won’t always match our best hopes and ideals for ourselves, one another, and the church. We’re sinners. Gifted and capable sinners, to be sure, with insight and conviction, often generous with time and resources, astonishingly kind and wonderfully compassionate at times. But sinners for all that, afraid because of what happened or might happen, guarded against past hurts in ways that distort our present relationships, trying hard to achieve the “good enough, smart enough, young enough, pretty/handsome enough, important enough” standards that haunt us, and sometimes measuring others down when we sense that we don’t measure up.

The good news is that God is riding piggyback on our stories as well, weaving through them an eternal thread of love’s victory. The piggyback God, who nourishes mission in and for the world out of the ragbag of our imperfect offering has known our predicament in the Incarnation, has lived it and endured its longest and most violent shadows in the life and death of Jesus. So it is that, with our confused and frightened ancestors, from Isaac the Terrified to Joseph the Dreamer in Chains, we discover God at work among and through us, not because of what we have accomplished, but because of God’s determination to make the most beautiful future possible out of the only material at hand.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Unbinding Abraham

The story our ancestors offer us from Hebrew scripture is called the Akeda, the binding and unbinding of Isaac. At the same time, though, it is also the story of the binding and unbinding of Abraham his father.

As he trudges up the slope of Mount Moriah with his son, “your only son, the son whom you love”, he believes with all his heart that what is necessary – what must happen – is that he tie his son up, cut his throat, and burn his body. Repugnant as this clearly must be to him, he cannot avoid it. It is inevitable. God demands it, and saying “No” to what God demands is not possible.

There are in this story two names for God. The first, “God” is a translation of the Hebrew “Elohim”. The second, “the LORD”, is how “Yahweh” is rendered in English translations. The God who binds Abraham to this sacrifice is Elohim; the God who unbinds him from it is Yahweh.

Stick with me here for a minute.  Elohim (God) is also used to speak of the gods of other peoples –  for example Ashtoret the Elohim of the Sidonians, Kemosh the Elohim of Moab, and Milkom the Elohim of the children of Amon in 1 Kings 11. Which makes me wonder – Could the shift from Elohim to Yahweh be the editor’s deliberate choice, creating a text that clearly distinguishes Yahweh from the Gods (Elohim) of other peoples? Especially if this text was brought together during the Babylonian captivity, among a people whose stories of their Elohim are so similar to those of Israel, might the editor be making the distinction between the Elohim who binds and Yahweh who unbinds, between a God of bondage and a Lord of freedom?

We live, I believe, in a world with an overdeveloped sense of inevitability at every social level – from our own inward life to what Herbert O’Driscoll calls “the maelstrom of the nations”. (Intriguingly, in the same hymn he refers to “the Lord of our tomorrows and the God of earth’s todays”.) We yield too easily to the belief that nothing can be done – about our own bad habits of heart and mind and body, about poverty and hunger in our communities, about the plight of the Canada’s First Peoples, about catastrophic climate change.  We rationalize our own continuing complicity as citizens and consumers in arrangements that fail the poor and exploit the weak. We trudge up Moriah, knowing on some level that what we are about is not good, yet convinced that it is unavoidable, that we have no choice, that the Elohim of the market or of our own comfort demand it.

In “You’ve Never Seen Everything”, Bruce Cockburn sings this chorus:

Bad pressure coming down,
Tears - what we really traffic in;
Ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around.

Somewhere on that mountain the bad pressure yields to "the light falling all around". Elohim gives way to Yahweh, and Abraham discovers a freedom he had never imagined possible, a Lord who unbinds him from what he was unable to refuse, who sets him free to embrace what he could scarcely imagine. I wonder if we can believe that Yahweh is eager to unbind us as well.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

With Isaac and Wilfred Owen in mind

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

Thursday, June 16, 2011

From entitlements to practices - For Trinity Sunday

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…”  (Matthew 28.19)
It’s pretty clear – baptism and discipleship belong together, in the same sentence, in the same breath. Baptism is how the church makes disciples. I wonder what would happen if we decided that the relationship between baptism and discipleship should be as clear and direct in our practice as it is in our scripture.

For the most part, our churches have leaned toward an apparently more Pauline understanding of baptism – as membership. In baptism, we graft new members into the Body of Christ. A hand, a foot, an eye – distinctive working parts of a purposeful body. Unfortunately, “member” has come to mean something quite different than it once did.

Membership has come to mean “belonging”, as in club membership – the Oakville Club, the YMCA. Moreover, as American Express reminds us, “membership has its privileges”.  It’s easy for us all to fall into the trap of imagining ourselves as privileged members of a religion club, of baptism as a ritual initiation not into a purposeful body, but into entitled membership. Clergy and other staff become responsible for providing the religious product – teaching, worship, and social life – that members want, rather than for equipping each member to make her or his unique and vital contribution to the shared purpose of the body.

That shared purpose, says today’s gospel, is found in discipleship, in following the way of Jesus. And the writer of Ephesians reminds us that the work of leaders – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry”. (Eph 4.11-12) In Ephesians, unlike at the YMCA, body building is not an end in itself, but the building of a capacity for ministry, for serving the purpose to which God calls us.

Our Baptismal Covenant frames that purpose with five characteristic behaviours:  
  • To sustain a common life of learning, koinonia, prayer and eucharist.
  • To resist evil and turn back to the way of Jesus when we have chosen other ways.
  • To tell the story of Jesus as Good News.
  • To serve God by way of loving service to those among whom we find ourselves.
  • To take up prophets’ witness to God’s passion for a just and peaceable humanity.

In baptism, membership doesn’t come with privileges. Membership comes with a covenant, a purpose, and with practices that sustain that covenant and serve that purpose.

Moreover, this is not a way of life for a particular tribe, for people with shared habits and histories. I wonder if we underestimate how strange and perhaps threatening Jesus’ assertion – that baptism incorporates “all nations” into a community of disciples – would have seemed to his contemporaries, for whom tribes and peoples were distinct and often mutually hostile. To include the Other – Other tribes, Other languages, Other customs, Other food and sounds and smells, the Other-wise oriented, Other histories – is a daring and provocative innovation. To include that Other as a partner in God’s work, not just tolerated, but vitally necessary to God’s mission, is high on the list of the church’s unfinished business. One day, perhaps it will be true that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Perhaps it will become more true one day at a time, as the baptized lay aside the entitlements of privileged membership to take up the practices of purposeful discipleship.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

If nothing had changed - For Pentecost

You could imagine them if nothing changed, getting together once in a while to “remember when”. At first, the absence of Jesus might have occasioned some sense of loss, or sadness, or even grief. At first, they would talk about how he disappeared – like Bilbo Baggins on his eleventy-first birthday – and wonder where he’d gone, what heaven was like, and whether they’d go there when their time came. They would have little bits of this and that to remind them of places they’d been with him, things he’d said to them, events they had gone through together.

Over time, the hard edge would come off the grief and loss, the memories a bit hazy and warmed by hindsight. They would laugh more, cry less, and say they should get together more often, when in fact, the gatherings would be rarer as time passed. They would talk about their children and grandchildren, and the passing of so much time so swiftly would amaze them every time. It wouldn’t have been a bad life, really.

But something did happen, and they were shaken out of their stupour by the very thing Jesus had told them to expect – the Holy Spirit.  They were awakened to a world hungry for hope and dignity, and human beings ready to claim some nobler purpose than fending off fear and scarcity. The minute the Holy Spirit passed through the room, they were out on the street, telling people a new story, one to replace the dismal story of stuff, status and power that raised some to the top, condemned most to the bottom, and stole from all the human birthright that calls us to work for compassion, for justice, for love.

What might have been a little club of people remembering when became a powerful agency serving God’s mission in and for the world. They would live like Jesus, and many of them would die like Jesus. Neither their living nor their dying would be easy, but at least it would matter, for God’s sake.

It wasn’t just that they saw and understood the world’s hunger and God’s desire to respond to that hunger. They saw themselves as part of how God could – how God would address that hunger. Something happened to them – the Spirit blew across the reed of their lives, and a new song emerged, buoyant and confident, bold and brassy. The wind and the fire changed them.

In Postcards from Cambodia, Bruce Cockburn sings these lines about the killing fields:
            And this is too big for anger, it’s too big for blame;
            we stumble through history so humanly lame –
            so I bow down my head, say a prayer for us all,
            that we don’t fear the Spirit when it comes to call.

That’s as close as I’ve seen to a perfect lyric for Pentecost. Until the Spirit comes, fear governs – like so many-most-all of us – the lives of those disciples. This Spirit who comes is the “perfect love” (John 4.18) that “casts out fear”. Casts out fear the way a people might rise up and throw out the government.  That’s one way – a good way – to think about our baptism. Renouncing the government of fear by which Love’s adversary confounds Love’s purposes, and embracing a government of Love, of the Spirit, of the One whose coming ought never to make us afraid – for this is God’s wind and fire, come to make us whole and restore us to our rightful work and service.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Ministry of the Church in the MIssion of God (2)

The Ministry of the Church in the Mission of God: The kingdom of God, here and now

So, what is God’s mission, God’s action in the world for the sake of the world, and how might the church encourage and prepare its members to participate in that action?  To begin, we turn to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God as both a present reality and a future hope.  In both Matthew and Mark, the first act of Jesus public ministry is a call to repent (turn around) and enter the Kingdom of God, which has “come near”.  In both cases, Jesus first hears this call to repent and inhabit the Kingdom of God from his cousin John, before John baptizes him.  For Jesus, baptism was baptism into the service of God’s mission. In his baptism by John, he embraces the purpose to which God calls him, as in our baptism we embrace the purpose to which God calls us, expressed in the Baptismal Covenant.

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven ‘by the Spirit’ into the wilderness.  That is to say, his time in the wilderness is a deliberate divine initiative, initiated by the Spirit.  In the wilderness, Satan (a word meaning “adversary”) comes to test Jesus, to invite him to abandon the purpose he embraced in his baptism and to take on other purposes as the foundation for his life.  Bread for his own hunger, status for his own ego, power for his own purposes – the Adversary offers him a self-centered life of physical, social and political contentment.  In each case, Jesus refuses the Adversary’s invitation and sustains the identity and purpose conferred in his baptism – the beloved child who both proclaims and enacts the Kingdom of God.

The proclamation comes, for the most part, in the form of parables.  Parables are, in Jesus’ teaching, always parables of the Kingdom, and many begin, “The Kingdom of God (or heaven) is like…”  A mustard seed, yeast in the dough, a pearl, a compassionate and generous enemy, a man with two sons.  Again and again, Jesus overturns conventional wisdom about how things must be in order to offer a glimpse of how things can be, and in some sense already are.  Blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, those who mourn, the pure in heart, the persecuted.  Again and again, Jesus offers what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘testimony to otherwise’, challenges what seems inevitable, and offers what seems outlandish, even impossible.

The enacting comes in three forms – healings, exorcisms, and his own passion and death.  Both disease and demon “occupy” the self, and turn it away from its own health and purpose.  Healing and exorcism cast out the destructive tenant and restore the self to health and purpose. 

In his death, Jesus enacts the deepest truth about the Kingdom of God, that its authority is grounded, not in force or fear, but in undefended, vulnerable, frail love. And in his resurrection, we learn that this frail love has authority over death, over fear, all hate and all harm.  “The Kingdom of God is like a king who, because of his love for others, allows himself to be crucified.”  There, at the heart of mission, is humanity redeemed, restored to our purpose in Jesus’ death and resurrection. There, at the heart of mission, is a broken king who, enduring death, defeats it, and inaugurates a new Kingdom of justice, love and peace. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Ministry of the Church in the Mission of God (1)

God’s mission, the church’s ministry

God has a mission.  A church exists to encourage and equip people to participate in that mission.  The work of participating in that mission is called ministry (or “service”).  Ministry is conferred in baptism. 

There was a time when the church had “missions” in distant places – Africa, the Arctic.  The purpose of such missions was, more or less, to bring people up to the cultural and religious mark – to make them civilized (western) and Christian.  The relationship between the local church and these missions was clear – local churches raised the resources to support distant missions.

As a child, I remember Jehovah’s Witnesses (often) and Mormons (once) coming to the door.  I shared the general impression that they were outlandish and intrusive.  Along with the Salvation Army, these were the only instances of local mission that I met in my early formation.

In 1991, South African missiologist David Bosch published Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission.  He argued that God initiates mission, and introduced the Latin tag “missio Dei” or “mission of God”.  The missio Dei he defined as “God’s turning to the world in love” – God acting in the world for the sake of the world –  and he invited the churches to think of ourselves as instruments in the hand of God for the mission God undertakes in the world.

The church exists to serve the missio Dei.  It is called into being not as a new religion, but as a new humanity, oriented towards the purposes of God, and participating in God’s costly and courageous work of redemption. The object of that redemption (what Jack Biersdorf calls “healing of purpose”) is not simply individual souls, but the whole household of earth.  Jesus’ work is the redemption of the world, and we who by baptism are grafted into his Body are called to participate in that work.  We are partners with Jesus our brother in serving the world.

Between 1984 and 1990, the Anglican Consultative Council (the international Anglican body consisting of bishops, priests, and lay people) commissioned work on what became, in 1990, the “Five Marks of Mission”, the five key activities by which the church serves the missio Dei:
  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

One way of thinking of these marks of mission is in terms of kerygma (proclamation that illuminates the missio Dei) and diakonia (service that enacts the missio Dei).  Our vocation as church is to discern what God is up to in the world, to talk about it, and to join in it.  Mission does not begin with us, with our preferences and habits, but with God, at work in the world for its transformation and healing, who by our baptism has called us into that work.  And while our part of it is local, and will bear the marks of our unique heritage and gifts, it is also catholic, that is, connected with others around the world who share with us the ministry conferred in baptism.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What Power? Whose Witnesses? For Ascension

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1

These words, from the only narrative appearance of Jesus outside the gospels, offer the contemporary church two lenses through which we can assess the choices of the past and the crisis of the present. “What power?”  “Whose witnesses?”

In this last week of the Easter season, we might recall that these were the questions that Jesus entertained in his own last week in Jerusalem, the week leading to his execution. What power would he choose? Whose witness would he be?

Throughout that last week, Jesus made his choice clear, and maintained a steadfast witness. While the religious authorities of Jerusalem adapted to Caesar’s power, rooted in the mastery of death, Jesus trusted the power of the one he called “Papa”, whose Spirit animates the life of the world. And while the authorities’ bending before Caesar’s power made them witnesses to fear, Jesus trust in his Papa made him a witness to love.

So now, after forty days of encounters with Jesus alive on the far side of death, the disciples gather with him one last time. And he commissions them. Your power will be the power of the Holy Spirit, and your witness will be to the transforming effect of embodied love.

Soon, though, the religious authorities were back at the imperial table, witnesses to fear, living on borrowed power. But this time it was religious authorities bearing the name “Christian”. We travelled around the globe on the coattails of empires, baptizing genocides, blessing wars and sanctifying slavery.  There were exceptions – Anabaptist sects like the Mennonites and Moravians, and shining individuals like William Wilberforce. But the Anabaptists were persecuted by Christian religious authorities, and William Wilberforce was considered a corrosive nuisance for most of his career. Led by Czar or Kaiser, King or Emperor, empires grow by fear. And churches who borrow power from empires are witnesses not to love, but to fear.

On August 6, 1993, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Michael Peers, apologized to the Sacred Circle at Minaki Ontario for the role of our church in the residential schools, for our partnership in taking children from their homes, denying them access to their language and their heritage, and exposing them to the fear and shame of abuse in the schools. Since then, the work of reconciliation has continued as a priority of the Anglican Church of Canada. You can read more about that continuing work at a “The Living Apology”,

Archbishop Peers was addressing one of the many consequences of our own church’s dalliance with empire. Of course our intentions were good – to offer the gospel (as we understood it) to children who had not received it, and along the way to “better” their lives. But as those viewing the world through the lens of the empire so often do, we had a distorted sense of what “good” would be for children, and entertained the self-deception that it could “better” a whole generation of children to be isolated from their parents, their community, their language and their heritage.

And so, today, Jesus tells another generation of disciples – “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses”.   What power?  Whose witnesses?